Whenever true baseball fans discuss the San Diego Padres, they attribute many things to the team from America’s Finest City.
It could be the fact that they have never won the World Series. It could be their ballpark and how its mere size could host the entire Wild Animal Park. Some people will eagerly point to Tony Gwynn, Mr. Padre himself. Cynics will recall the old brown uniforms and how the Friars couldn’t have looked more ridiculous in hot pink or if they all took the field in San Diego Chicken costumes.
One thing that has not been connected to the Padres has been that disease that befalls many franchises at some point, which is an overwhelming need for a closer.
In fact, you’d have to hire an archaeologist to dig for any evidence that the Padres were ever in need of one.
There was Rollie Fingers featuring his handlebar mustache, Goose Gossage with his Fu Manchu, Craig Lefferts and his mad dash from the bullpen, Cy Young award winner Mark Davis, cigarette smoking Rod Beck, Trevor Hoffman and Hell's Bells and finally, Hoffman's direct descendant, “Blow me away” Heath Bell.
Whatever the baseball fan may or may not list concerning the woes of the San Diego Padres, an issue with the closer has never been one of them. It’s a mechanism that’s been as automatic as the sun setting in the West or tourists flocking to Pacific Beach. Although I will not bother with the stats here, there is little doubt that San Diego ranks near the top for converted save opportunities over its history.
Enter Heath Bell, heir apparent to legend and all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman.
Now in his fifth year with the Padres, Bell needed to wait until the tender age of 31 and Trevor Hoffman’s virtual dismissal from the Padres to flex his muscle and pump his mid-90s heat past baffled hitters in late innings. Through it all, Heath Bell never complained, raining numerous accolades on his now retired predecessor.
When his chance finally arrived in 2009, Heath Bell ran with it.
He is the direct opposite of Trevor: Whereas Bell throws a heavy fastball, Hoffman’s would have had trouble cracking a windshield. Hoffman’s out pitch would be the change-up, no doubt his ticket to Cooperstown when five years will have passed. Bell gets batters with heat or his curve. Fans marveled at Hoffman’s physique, whereas Bell at times resembles a float at Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade.
What both players do have in common is a 41-game save streak, tops in franchise history.
Bell’s streak came to an end last night at Petco, courtesy of a two-run throwing error by third baseman Chase Headley, who threw away Heath Bell’s shot at history.
If there is one thing that might trump Heath Bell’s ability, then it is his character. The undisputed leader of the Padres' bullpen (dubbed the “Penitentiary”), Bell showed a tremendous amount of class following the game, citing the two batters he’d walked earlier in the inning as the key for the streak buster rather than Headley’s obvious spike of the baseball.
It’s hard not to root for a guy like Heath Bell.
A San Diego county native, Bell ironically made his debut against the Padres, pitching two innings with three strikeouts for the New York Mets in 2004, seven years after he’d been drafted. In 2006, he would get his big break when the Mets traded him to the Padres where he would become their setup man in the eighth inning before Hoffman would close games out.
As guys like Adrian Gonzalez and Ozzie Smith before him can attest, being a star in San Diego ultimately has the predictability of what happens to a target when Seal Team Six breaks into your house.
With Heath Bell making a whopping $7.5 million this season, his continued employment in San Diego beyond the season is as likely as the city of San Diego purchasing snowplows for weather related emergencies.
No matter which way the ball bounces, San Diego is fortunate to have a player like Heath Bell; a leader, a tremendous athlete and a class act.
The city will certainly be a worse place without him.