SAN DIEGO – Heath Bell is holding his yoga frog, a gift from his mother, and explaining that the leg broke but has been taped up and so everything is fine now.
It's here because, well, first because his mom sent it. But then because early on there's no telling the regular goofy stuff from the good-luck charms, and Bell doesn't seem the type to take those kinds of chances.
So yoga frog has a shelf in a locker in the home clubhouse at Petco Park.
You never know.
Bell, by the way, is the guy who lost 25 pounds this winter on the Nintendo Wii diet (playing it, not eating it), who tools around his Florida neighborhood on a gas-powered beverage cooler, who in spring training ferried his pet rat (Daisy) on his shoulder, who in the first weeks of the season has chided ESPN for its love affair with all things Yankees-Red Sox and the Mets for their inability to discern talent. In him. And whose entrance music he pulled out of a video game, which sort of makes sense when you consider the diet.
He's also the guy with seven saves in seven tries, who has allowed three hits and no runs in 7 2/3 innings over eight appearances pitching mostly on the back end of a lineup that so far has been greater than a sum of its bats, and has put some personality into an unexpectedly capable first few weeks by the retooled Padres.
"I'm getting so much hype, I'm thinking I better not screw up," Bell said. "People might hate me."
For two years he helped set up Trevor Hoffman's save chances, a job he adored. When he pitched the eighth, Bell would ice up in the trainers' room and then run back to the dugout, just to watch Hoffman's ultra-cool entrance.
"Every time," he said.
Now the ninth innings are his, which, when the season began, didn't look like it was going to be much of a job.
In the season after they lost 99 games and their owner settled up his divorce by stripping down the club so he could sell it, the Padres reduced their payroll by about $30 million. They haven't traded their ace – Jake Peavy – yet, but won't stop trying. They've remade most of the pitching staff around Peavy and Chris Young, and they're playing young and/or unproven players in a lot of places, probably too many to sustain their current 10-6 pace.
There was plenty of talk the Padres would lose 100 games. That apparently, won't go away.
"My buddy called the other day, said, 'Hey man, you still gonna lose a hundred?' " Bell recounted. "I'm like, 'Dude, why are we losing a hundred?' "
There are ballclubs a man never warms up to, even when he builds them himself. By that measure alone, general manager Kevin Towers set out to change as much as he could on his roster. The 2007 club, remember, had lost a lot of late September games, then lost the play-in game to the Rockies, and Towers became convinced the players never recovered.
"I just didn't see much character on our club last year," Towers said. "We were kind of blah. I didn't ever feel that club had the ability to put the previous year behind it. It was kind of like, 'Poor me.' "
Of the 14 pitchers the Padres have used this month, nine weren't with the team last season. Chase Headley is the regular left fielder, Nick Hundley the regular catcher, Luis Rodriguez the regular shortstop, and it hasn't hurt them yet; they've won series in New York and Philly and are hanging with the Dodgers in the National League West. Newcomer David Eckstein has become their soul, the way he always does.
"By design, we changed a lot of the club," Towers said. "We kind of wanted to clean house a little bit, get a new breed, some fiery players."
It so happened, Towers said, the clubhouse also became more diverse.
"We've always been the fair-haired, Southern California surfer look," he said. "It was never by design. It just worked out that way. Now we've created a good clubhouse and it's been a real positive."
So, now they play the schedule and see if any of it makes sense, see if they can hold the rotation together while waiting on Cha Seung Baek and Walter Silva, see if any rotation with Baek and Silva in it is worth holding together. They weren't ever going to score runs, yet for the moment are a solid mediocre at it even with Brian Giles striking out a lot and making it impossible to trade him.
So far, Towers likes his lineup's ability to grind against good pitchers, and to come back on bullpens, and to play the game to the last inches. He's also mostly realistic.
"How good are we going to be?" he mused. "It's not going to be a disaster. Nothing like last year. You're going to have to play good ball to beat us."
The locals seem to appreciate that.
Role call comes from the right-field bleachers here, just like at Yankee Stadium.
It works its way through the outfield, then around the infield, each player hearing his name and acknowledging the chorus, just like the Yankees do. Adrian Gonzalez offers a wave. Eckstein tugs at his cap's bill. Rodriguez holds his glove over his head.
Except, instead of hundreds of fans shouting in unison, this is, like, three guys from Chula Vista having a good time, and the ballpark being very quiet, and the Padres being nice enough to play along. It's actually awkwardly sweet and one of the many likable parts about the Padres, who are going to have to fight like crazy to overachieve to be just OK.
They seem amenable to that, no one more than Bell, who just got his dream job at 31. He saved more than 100 minor league games for the Mets, who once told him he was free to leave the organization or accept a demotion to Double A, his choice. They traded him to San Diego (with fellow reliever Royce Ring) after the 2006 season for right-hander Jon Adkins (five major league appearances) and outfielder Ben Johnson (.185 batting average in nine games). Bell, in the meantime, has ridden his hard fastballs and sliders to a 2.61 ERA over 163 appearances for the Padres. He looks a tad thick in places ("Baseball pants do nothing for me," he admits), too thin in others, and probably has developed an unhealthy addiction to Monster energy drinks ("Unleash the beast," it crows), so not at all like the man he replaced, the chiseled and decorated Hoffman, but just like his ballclub.
"This is a whole team of gamers," Bell said. "Maybe we don't look like much, but when you get on the field, we'll battle for everything."
He calls himself "an average guy," even if his perspective and belief in himself are rather uncommon. He spent too long getting here to suddenly become someone else, which is what led to a very busy early couple weeks in front of the microphones. He called it his "destiny" to register the first save at the Mets' new digs, Citi Field, and then did. And he wondered where the Padres were on the big national sports station, saying, "That's why I like the MLB Network."
"He's been hilarious," said Cliff Floyd, who is on the Padres' DL and knows Bell from New York. "It's a big ocean to fill if you don't do well. But, so far so good.
"You like a character, a little personality. But, already there'll be some guys waiting on him."
Sounds like a job for yoga frog.
"Since I was 5," Bell said, "when my dad took me to Anaheim Stadium, I wanted 40,000 people to cheer me or boo me. Everybody's told me I couldn't do it."
Here he is.
"I want to do this," he said. "I'm having fun doing this."
- Kevin Towers