SAN DIEGO – Funny thing about a man's cleats, how the leather softens and stretches over only a few weeks, drawing the opposing eyelets nearer and nearer, leaving more and more lace.
When "Blow Me Away," the song by Breaking Benjamin, beckons, and Heath Bell(notes) jerks open the bullpen gate and tugs hard at his cap, he can't help but consider the properties of leather – the way it hugs his feet, and the "rabbit ears" of shoelace it produces over time.
And so with some 80 yards of turf and the ninth inning ahead of him, along with at least three hitters and a lead to preserve, Bell, try as he does, can't get it out of his head:
But it's not like he's obsessed. Because once he begins his violent, head-down, 260-pounds-of-business dash toward the infield, an entrance that looks vaguely like a man running up the down escalator after catching fire, he has completely forgotten the leather. After watching the outfield grass lumber past for what must seem like several minutes, and when he catches his first glimpse of infield dirt, his thoughts turn instead to the matter at hand.
"Please, don't let me have run to third base. Or first base."
"Honestly," the San Diego Padres closer says. "That's what I think about."
Don't become ensnared like a rodeo calf. And try to run in a reasonably straight line that does not end in the photographers' well.
The rest, you know, sort of takes care of itself.
That, with any given fastball, Bell doesn't know if its velocity will be 91 or 96 or somewhere in between, often is of less importance than actually arriving at the mound.
When he does, going on a year and over 40 consecutive save situations now, Bell converts. With an inside linebacker's frothiness and a finesse pitcher's cool, beginning last May 29 against the Washington Nationals, Bell has saved them all.
It is a time of great unrest across baseball's ninth innings. In some cases managers have settled on men whose greatest attribute is they won't vomit when the bullpen phone rings. Many clubs are two or three deep on the closer depth chart, notably in Philadelphia, Chicago and St. Louis. Save percentages are down three percent from 2010, and at their lowest in three years.
From that wreckage comes Bell, who, at 33, has been a regular closer for all of two seasons and a month of a third. He possesses a child's heart, wrapped in the spirit of an old soul. He tweets photos of the pool he's building in his backyard and The Bacon Pyramid – think John Wooden's Pyramid of Success, only with a maple bacon sundae at the top – from his breakfast place. And then with a serious frown he studies hitters, reads scouting reports three times over in an attempt to memorize them, and pumps his fist and chest-crashes his catcher in celebration of a save.
His streak hit 40 Saturday in Los Angeles in, for him, a rather tidy 16 pitches. Granted a three-run lead – his 17th of the 40 – Bell got a grounder, gave up a line-drive single, then got a strikeout and a long fly ball. Among the longest saves streaks in history, Bell's ranked tied for fifth, with Dennis Eckersley's. Trevor Hoffman(notes), the iconic closer Bell replaced following the 2008 season, and Rod Beck are next at 41.
At the top, of course, lies the memory of Eric Gagne, who converted 84 consecutive save opportunities from 2002-04. Tom Gordon(notes) had 54 consecutive saves with the Boston Red Sox from 1998-99. For comparison purposes, Mariano Rivera's(notes) longest streak is 31.
Bell was a minor leaguer during those three summers of Gagne and in fact debuted with the New York Mets six weeks after Gagne's run ended.
He recalled watching Gagne's mix of 96-mph fastball, 88-mph changeup ("That's a pretty good fastball," Bell said) and 70-mph curveball and thinking, "This guy is filthy." He also recalls thinking, "There's no chance he's doing that naturally."
It turns out he probably wasn't, and the ninth inning hasn't seen the likes of Gagne since. Born in Oceanside, Calif., and raised in Orange County, Bell's taste in heroes ran more toward Eckersley (whom his father said reminded him of Goose Gossage), Beck, Troy Percival(notes) and, of course, Hoffman.
Perhaps, then, it comes with some ambivalence that his next save would tie Hoffman, who helped mentor Bell during Bell's seasons as a setup man in San Diego, and the one after that would pass him.
"I want to be No. 2," Bell said. "I never wanted to beat his records or achievements. Because he's No. 1. I'm happy at No. 2. I really am. I want to be the best I can be, but there'll never be another Trevor Hoffman."
Hoffman remains No. 1 in career saves, with 601. Five hundred and four saves back, tied for 130th all-time, is Bell with 97. So, Hoffman's legacy seems safe for now.
Bell said he believes Gagne's record can be had. Not necessarily by Bell himself, he said, but by somebody. Compared, say, to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, a closer can have an off day. In fact, Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley once wryly advised Bell, "If you're going to give up runs, do it when we're up by three."
"I can have a bad day," Bell said. "As a hitter, you can't have a bad day."
Indeed, over more than 11 months, Bell, like all pitchers, has pitched with heavy legs and a sore arm and wandering mechanics. But the ball finds a glove, a rally dies in the wind, or three days pass between save opportunities, providing the time for recovery.
So, he waits out the game, stomps in from the bullpen and takes the ball and the chance.
For 40 and counting, he hasn't tripped yet.
- Heath Bell