Friendship guides Pirates’ Josh Bell in Home Run Derby pitcher choice |
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Jerry DiPaola

Josh Bell grew up playing baseball in the Dallas suburb of Irving, Texas, often competing against older kids because he was too good for those his own age.

He was drafted in the second round in 2011, enticed to sign a big league contract when the Pittsburgh Pirates offered a $5 million signing bonus.

Jon Schwind, who grew up half a nation away in the Village of Hilton, N.Y., was drafted 39 rounds later that year. By the time Schwind had played his last game in the minors in 2017, Bell had hit 34 home runs in the majors.

Yet a bond grew between the two almost from the day they joined the Pirates’ Single-A West Virginia Black Bears in 2012. They rehabbed injuries together and were teammates and roommates through Double-A ball in Altoona. Bell stood for Schwind at his wedding, and they routinely visited each other in the offseason despite the distance between their hometowns.

“We made a friendship and maintained it throughout the years,” Bell said Monday in the Pirates clubhouse.

That friendship led Bell to ask Schwind to be his pitcher next Monday in the Home Run Derby at Progressive Field in Cleveland.

“We fell in love with the game together, researched it together, tried to get better together,” Bell said. “Definitely happy he’s going to be able to share this opportunity with me.

“He’s the closest thing I got to a brother.”

In spring training this year, Schwind, who is the assistant hitting coach of the Pirates’ Triple-A affiliate in Indianapolis, told Bell he would hit in the Home Run Derby.

“I think he saw it coming,” Bell said. “I said if I’m making it, you’re throwing to me. He said, ‘I’m ready.’ ”

Bell is eager to embrace the Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game, where he is expected to be the National League’s starting designated hitter.

He is not concerned trying to hit home runs will mess with his swing in the second half of the season, even though it is a concern often expressed by coaches.

“I’m pretty sure that’s not the case,” Bell said. “Who knows? Fingers crossed, regardless.”

Bell said he talked to former teammate Andrew McCutchen, who competed in 2012 and still ended the season with the highest batting average of his career (.327).

“He said just swing at 70 percent,” Bell said. “Not trying to swing 150 percent. With the adrenaline, the people in the stands, just you and the ball out there, no defenders, just trying to get the ball in the seats is going to ramp you up.

“I should be good. We always have a couple of home run rounds in batting practice. I haven’t stretched it out to four straight minutes, but I’m definitely excited to. It’s something as a kid I practiced. Hopefully, that hard work pays off.”

Meanwhile, he trusts his buddy Schwind, a catcher during his playing days, will serve up some juicy meatballs.

“I don’t think I’d want to face a pitcher up there,” Bell said. “They might be too good.”

Bell said he owes Pirates fans a debt of gratitude after the voting campaign nearly got him elected as a starter in his first All-Star Game appearance

“The campaign was awesome,” he said. “Seeing all the tweets and the support on Instagram. The city really has my back. Hopefully, I can put on a show for them.”

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