At one point it appeared that the education of Juan Bell was designed as a crash course.
That no longer seems to be the case, and the gifted young shortstop appears to be making steady, if not always spectacular, progress toward the major leagues.
Which doesn’t mean the Baltimore Orioles will start preparing Cal Ripken for a permanent move to third base. That will probably take a while.
Bell was sent to Rochester after being thoroughly tested in the Orioles’ spring training camp. With the team’s Triple A club, he has mixed flashes of brilliance with almost equal doses of inconsistency.
But ask anybody how the key figure in the trade for Eddie Murray is doing, and the answers are the same. Rick Schu, the veteran who was demoted by the Orioles shortly after the season started, considered the question for a few seconds.
“He’s got a lot of ability,” said Schu, who hesitated, not sure how to finish the sentence.
“But he makes youthful mistakes,” was suggested as an appropriate continuation.
“Exactly,” said Schu, who plays third base. Like almost everyone else in the organization, Shue sees potential greatness if Bell can harness some erratic tendencies. “He makes the play in the hole as good as anybody,” Shue said.
The reservations about Bell center around one thing--his age. “He’s just a kid,” said Rochester Manager Greg Biagini. “He still makes careless errors--but he can also be spectacular.
“You have to remember he’s only 21 years old, he was involved in a major trade, and he has a family (two children, ages four and two),” said Biagini. “For me, the biggest things for him are playing time and maturity.”
Immature, unmanageable and temperamental were a few of the adjectives used to describe Bell after the Los Angeles Dodgers sent him to the Orioles along with Brian Holton and Ken Howell in the Murray trade. Biagini insists it was a bad rap.
“All that crap that was written about him after the trade just isn’t true,” Biagini said. “I haven’t seen one sign of that. He’s really a good kid.”
Bell seems destined to be compared to his older brother George, the Toronto outfielder with the nasty disposition.
Biagini thinks that’s unfair--just as he thinks it’s wrong to expect Juan to be spectacular all of the time. “He’s going to do some things, be a little inconsistent, until he’s played enough,” said Biagini.
How much longer it will take for Bell to reach the majors remains to be seen, but most agree that a timetable would be disastrous. “I definitely thinks he needs at least a full year here,” said Schu.
Others say two years would be more realistic. Bell himself doesn’t want to offer a time estimate.
“They gave me all the chance they could,” he said, referring to his playing time in spring training. “I got to see a lot of American League pitchers. When they sent me out, it was OK.
“I just wanted to go out and work hard. I know I can play, but I don’t want to be doing a lot of talking. I just want to show them that I will work hard.”
Bell is hitting .267, which is acceptable, but he has almost as many strikeouts (29) as hits (31). He also has made 11 errors, which translated over a full minor-league season works out to about 45--too many.
“What you have to like about him,” said Red Wings pitching coach Dick Bosman, “is that he always makes the routine play. That is a very big factor. Sometimes he hurries plays, but young players are going to do that.”
“I’ll tell you one thing about Juan; he can hit,” said Biagini, stressing the one point that wasn’t emphasized when the Orioles made the trade with the Dodgers. “If you throw hard to him, he’ll smoke you. His problem is dealing with off-speed stuff. Right now he just doesn’t have enough patience.”
The impatience can be demonstrated in a lot of ways. A few days ago in Scranton, Pa., Bell took a hard fastball inside for a second strike. The next pitch was an off-speed delivery that was a called strike three.
The next sound was Bell’s bat breaking on top of home plate. He survived that. A few steps later, he turned and gestured at the umpire, spreading his arms wide. He survived again. But a few words later, Bell was thrown out of the game.
About two weeks ago he had followed the same routine--but escaped a dismissal. He didn’t get away with it the next time.
Call it experience. Biagini prefers to call it maturity. It’s part of growing up, in life and in baseball.
When Bell started the season going 0-for-12, with seven strikeouts, and then made three errors in one game at Pawtucket, alarm signals went off.
But Biagini knew the whole story. “He had his family in a hotel (in Rochester) and we played one game, then had to go on the road. The hotel wanted him to pay before he left, and he didn’t have any money,” said the manager.
“The club took care of it right away, but it was on his mind, you could tell. It wasn’t easy for him.”
A word to the wise in Baltimore might be this: Don’t look at Juan Bell as Cal Ripken’s eventual successor. Look at him as a talent still in the development stage.
Experience, patience and maturity tend to come in the same package. Sometimes it’s difficult to wrap.
Juan Bell has the ability. He needs to develop, so let him be like a good wine--not delivered before his time.