Being away from family is tough for Bell
Marlins closer struggled in early part of the season
Heath Bell no doubt agreed with T.S. Eliot, the poet who 90 years ago penned the line, "April is the cruelest month."
The Marlins right-handed closer seemingly could do little right during the first month of the season -- actually stretching three games into May. He blew his first two save opportunities and two of his next five chances.
This from a guy who, as the Padres' closer, had only eight blown saves in 2010 and 2011 combined before joining Miami as a free agent.
Bell spoke of "off-the-field personal problems" that began even before the season started. He revealed no more, although he did acknowledge that being in Miami while his wife Nicole and children were in San Diego, where he pitched from 2007-2011, wore on him. They recently came to Miami for the summer.
Bell spent 1998 to 2003 entirely in the Minors, and parts of 2004-2006 as well.
"I had three kids by the time I was in Triple-A," he said. "We didn't have enough money for them to come out during the summer because I was in the Minor Leagues. I'd be gone for eight months, then come home for about a month, then go to Winter (League) ball just to get enough money to survive, then home for a month, then to Spring Training (and the season) and be gone for eight months. ...
"We have four kids now (daughters Jasmyn and Jordyn and sons Reece and Rhett) and three of them, I never saw their first step. One of them I never even saw crawl. It was like I just came back and he was walking.
"A lot of us like to think we're superhuman," Bell said. "But things do affect us, and we do have families and things do happen in our personal lives that nobody ever hears about. Everybody expects us to be like robots. You can't be."
What really helped him, he said, was his Marlins teammates and team ownership patting him on the back and telling him not to worry, that he'd get back to where he used to be.
There also was Randy St. Claire, Miami's pitching coach, who worked with him on his mechanics. And Nicole, who wrote to him on Facebook: "Don't worry about the other stuff that's going on. You've overcome so many things. Don't let this get you."
Basically, Bell said, "I went back to my old self."
That meant throwing breaking balls and changeups on fastball counts, "pitching unorthodox, like I normally do ... trusting my stuff," he said.
The Mets, who signed him as a free agent in 1998 and called him up in August 2004, apparently didn't trust his stuff enough to be their closer. They had John Franco, then Armando Benitez, then Braden Looper, then Billy Wagner
"It was like, 'Just give me a chance,'" Bell said. "'You can even give me a chance for the eighth-inning role, just the setup guy.' And they never did."
After 2006, the Mets traded Bell to the Padres, where Trevor Hoffman was chasing the Yankees' Mariano Rivera for the all-time saves record. Hoffman retired with 601; Rivera has 608.
"It was like, 'If the stars are ever aligned, I'm going to get a chance to close a game,'" he said. "In New York, there was no chance."
Hoffman left as a free agent after 2008. Bell took over, amassing 42 saves, which was fourth in the Majors in 2009 and two behind Rivera. The next season Bell had 47, one behind the leader, the Giants' Brian Wilson. Last year he tied for sixth with 43.
He never reached the postseason in his five years with San Diego. On Dec. 5, he signed with the Marlins.
"I'm happy to be with an organization that has a chance to win this year," he said.
Bruce Lowitt is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.