Bell returns to Pirates as hitting coach in hopes of reversing team's fortunes
BRADENTON, Fla. — The dorm rooms at Pirate City, where minor leaguers crash when they're in town to train, are decorated in honor of some of the franchise's greatest players. A few days after spring training began, the Pirates' new hitting coach walked into the “Jay Bell room” and gazed at a photo of himself, circa 1992.
“Shoot ... no gray hair at all back then,” Bell said, grinning. “It's been 17 years since I saw Pirate City. It's such a huge thrill to be back. It's amazing how much this place has changed.”
The building looked more like a decrepit motel in the early 1990s, when Bell was the everyday shortstop on teams that won three straight NL East titles. Pirate City was renovated and improved over the years. The ballclub went in the other direction.
The Pirates traded Bell after the 1996 season. He played another seven years and made two more trips to the playoffs with Arizona in 1999 and 2001. The Pirates, meanwhile, haven't had a winning season since 1992 — a record-setting run of futility that included second-half flops the past two seasons.
“It's been wonderful to keep up the success they've had, and it's been a huge disappointment not to see them come through at the end,” Bell said. “But they're close. It's a young, talented group of guys. They can either get better, or they can go the other way. It's right in our grasp. We don't want to focus on just being above .500. The goal is to be excellent, the best we possibly can be.”
Bell was hired to help get them there, this time from the dugout. He's the team's fourth hitting coach in seven years.
In two seasons under Gregg Ritchie and three under Don Long, the Pirates never had better than a .258 team batting average or a .723 OPS. Both of those high marks came in 2008, Long's first year as hitting coach.
Long was fired after the Pirates had the lowest batting average (.242) in the National League in 2010. Last year, after the team hit .243, Ritchie left to become coach at George Washington.
Bell played 18 seasons in the majors and has a .265 career average. Last year, he was hitting coach for the Mobile BayBears, Arizona's Double-A affiliate, which won the Southern League.
“My past couple of hitting coaches — nothing against them — they were great coaches, but they didn't play in the big leagues for a long period of time,” center fielder Andrew McCutchen said. “It's good to have someone here who has that experience. Jay knows because he's been around. It's going to be good to have that new feel from him.”
One week after Bell accepted the Diamondbacks' offer to become their Triple-A hitting coach, the Pirates called. Manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington interviewed him for three hours at a hotel at Pittsburgh International Airport because Bell had to fly out that day to help coach Team New Zealand.
“I like his skill set, his intelligence and awareness of the game,” Hurdle said. “He's won a Silver Slugger and a Gold Glove. He understands separation of the game, offensively and defensively. He's got street cred. And the fact he was a Pirate back in the day, his blood runs a little thicker.”
A couple of days after getting to New Zealand, Bell heard back from the Pirates.
“I called (my wife) Laura and said, ‘What do you think about going back to Pittsburgh?' ” Bell said. “It was full circle. To have the opportunity to go back to Pittsburgh, having grown up in the game there as a player, and being able to share the legacy of Milt May, Jim Leyland, Ray Miller, Tommy Sandt, Bill Virdon and Gene Lamont with these (current) players is a huge honor and a thrill for me.”
May was Bell's hitting coach for eight years with the Pirates. From him, Bell learned the best way to coach was to not muddle the message.
“Milt tried to make it as simple as he possibly could,” Bell said. “When everything goes wrong, usually it's not the mechanics. Usually, it's a timing issue.”
Bell wants to give each batter, even the pitchers, the freedom to find a stance, a swing and an approach that works best.
“My stance was not that of Barry Bonds or Bobby Bonilla or Andy Van Slyke ... or even Randy Tomlin,” Bell said. “We all had different styles, different approaches. We all had to develop something we felt comfortable with.
“These guys need to develop their own routine. I can kind of guide them in a way that I think is appropriate, but it has to be something they're comfortable with and they feel sure about. It has to be something that, whenever they step in the box during a game, they know exactly what is going on. It's theirs to take ownership of. It's my job to help them maintain it.”
The players already have taken to Bell's method.
“It's almost as if he's not there because he's not overbearing, telling you what to do after every at-bat,” McCutchen said. “If we have a question, we're grown men, we can ask. If something's bothering us, he's the guy who's going to help.”