By JED WEISBERGER
TRENTON, NJ – Jay Bell, who will manage the Double-A Trenton Thunder for the Yankees organization in 2018, doesn’t mind telling all how his baseball foundation was built.
The 52-year-old native of Cantonment, Fla, a town of 26,493 that both produced Hall of Fame pitcher Don Sutton and is as close to Alabama as you can get in the Florida Panhandle, credits former big-league manager Jim Leyland with helping him amass an 18-year career.
Bell came to Pittsburgh from Cleveland, where he had scuffled at the plate after hitting the first 1986 pitch he saw for a home run off Bert Blyleven, in exchange for pitcher Danny Gonzales and shortstop Felix Fermin March 25, 1990. Leyland liked what he saw in the then-24-year-old.
‘’I appreciated that I had a manager like Jim Leyland who appreciated the way I played,’’ said Bell at the Thunder’s 2018 Media Day Tuesday afternoon, ‘I love vanilla baseball. If we can catch the balls we are supposed to catch, we’ll have a lot of success.’’
Bell, after arriving in Pittsburgh and playing under Leyland through 1996, cemented his position as one of the top shortstops in the 1990s, in fact winning a Gold Glove in 1993, breaking Ozzie Smith’s 13-year streak. At the plate, he turned himself into a hitter who would bash 38 home runs and drive in 112 runs for Arizona in 1999.
Under Leyland, Bell, who never had the greatest range, learned all the facets of how every opposing hitter placed the ball. No shortstop of that era was better at being in the right spot to field a batted ball to his area of the infield.
‘’Some of the things that Jim Leyland taught me whenever I was a young player, I still maintain today,’’ said Bell. “It is a simple message; it’s about really respecting the game and playing the game hard and that kind of stuff.
‘’If you have the opportunity to score that one run early, do it,’’ he explained. ‘’if you get one, they need two. It’s a simple message.’’
The majority of Trenton’s 2018 players, many of whom were part of Bell’s 2017 Tampa club, which finished with the Florida State League’s best regular-season mark at 85-50, know what Bell will be preaching.
‘’Sometimes it’s not always their (the players’) definition of hard. It’s the staff’s definition. It’s the Yankees’ definition of hard and we have high expectations for them. We have 26 guys (in Trenton). I touched 23 of them last year (at Class-A Advanced Tampa).
“My passion is to teach.’’
The strength, at least to start, for the 2018 Thunder, will be its rotation, led by left-hander Justus Sheffield and right-hander Domingo Acevedo.
“Both Acevedo and Sheffield have the stuff,’’ said Bell. “We’ll work on them with command and see if we can advance them to the next level.’’
Leyland was a master at boosting the confidence of a player and improving his performance level.
No doubt Bell, with the 2018 Thunder, and quite possibly in the majors in the future, will do the same with his players. You can tell.