Will Bell Be Trouble for Cubs or Rest of NL?

NEWSDAY

The thought of playing his home games at Wrigley Field is an appealing one for George Bell. Given his first look at the ballpark at the All-Star Game last season, he turned to Ryne Sandberg, a former teammate in the Phillies' minor-league system, and said, "Boy, I wouldn't mind playing here."

But what Bell may find most to his liking is not the park's cozy dimensions, but its clubhouse. There, Bell intends to have fun again. What the Cubs offered him this winter, in addition to his three-year, $9.8-million contract, was a chance to escape Toronto. He gladly took them up on it.

"I'm glad I'm out of there," Bell said Thursday. "It used to be fun there: '83, '84, '85. After that it just got worse. Mostly it was (former manager) Jimy Williams and (General Manager) Pat Gillick. Pat Gillick can kiss my (butt). Go ahead and print that.

"It got so bad there you hated to be there. You know what it's like? It's like when you really hate your wife so bad that you can't stand to look at her. And you come home and you don't even want to see her. That's the way it was with Jimy Williams when I walked in there. I didn't want to look at him. I just had this, this power in my body against him. I couldn't go out there and play for the man. I played for the Toronto Blue Jays, but I couldn't play for him.

"Here, they just let you play. They don't play games with you. It's fun to be here. Jimy Williams and Pat Gillick, they can kiss my (butt)."

It is precisely that sort of brute honesty and raw emotion that has put into question just what Bell might bring the Cubs. He might provide the last big bat the Cubs need to be a championship club, or he might stir enough controversy to bring them down.

The Cubs were so concerned about his reputation that two days before they signed him, a club official telephoned Sandberg to ask just how disruptive Bell could be.

"We have a chance to get George Bell? Get him," Sandberg replied. "Don't worry about the other stuff. He always plays hard."

"So far," Manager Don Zimmer said, "he's been fine. You know, people are always asking me, 'How are you going to handle George Bell?' I tell them the same thing: 'I ain't going to handle him any differently than anybody else."'

Bell still has his moments. The coaches can't seem to get him to take very many fly balls in the outfield. And Thursday, when the Cubs took fielding practice before a game against Arizona State, Bell didn't bother to take part. He headed for the batting cage while the team went through its drills without a left fielder.

The cynics would suggest that such an alignment might be an improvement over one that includes Bell, whose glove and throwing arm may be greater liabilities than his demeanor. Bell used to bristle when Williams limited him to being a designated hitter. But when Zimmer spoke to Bell about his defense on one of the first days of camp, Bell did not protest.

Said Zimmer, "George, there are times when we get a lead ..."

Bell stopped him. "I know what you do," he said. "I watched your games. You put somebody else out there. That's fine with me."

He knows he is here to hit. He is a career .286 hitter who has averaged 28 home runs and 102 RBI in his seven full seasons in the major leagues. Zimmer said he hasn't decided whether to bat Bell fourth and Andre Dawson fifth, or the other way around. In either case, they will bat behind Jerome Walton, Sandberg and Mark Grace and anchor one of the most formidable batting orders in baseball.

"I don't have to impress anybody," Bell said. "I don't have to show anybody what I can do. I don't have to worry about what it's like changing leagues and seeing new pitchers. I just go out there every day and play hard and I'll do well."

Bell said he will do so with a renewed enthusiasm for his work. But even then there is always this edge to him. He is perceived as a bad guy, he said, because "I tell the truth and people in America don't want to hear that. A lot of people don't like me because I come from Latin America. People don't like it when I speak the truth."

He wears a new uniform and harbors new hope for peace around him, but the same question about Bell remains: whether he will create more trouble for his own team or the rest of the league.

"I don't care," he said. "Nobody's going to step on me. I'll win. I've been through all the (garbage). When I'm done with this game, I'm finished. I don't want anything to do with it. No coach, no scout, no radio or TV. I'm going to go home and that's it."

Bell lives in a mansion in the Dominican Republic that is said to be 13 square feet larger than the White House.

"I'm going to go home and feed the cows," he said.

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