The man behind Cody Bellinger's early success with the Dodgers

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

LOS ANGELES – The latest here is a willowy 21-year-old first baseman-outfielder who arrived a bit earlier than expected, stayed longer than expected, is politely reluctant to talk too much about himself, and has a father with a box full of World Series rings, and maybe those things are not unrelated.

Major league legacies tend to show up reasonably sure of themselves, certain they already are a triple shy of the cycle or with only everything to prove. It can work either way, or not, but it’s a lot easier for everyone else to live with the latter.

Cody Bellinger believes he was 8 or 9 years old when his dad, Clay, presented a container Cody had not seen before, placed it on a table and lifted the cover. What shone from inside were the rewards of three of Clay’s four big-league seasons – gleaming rings from the 1999 New York Yankees, 2000 Yankees and 2002 Anaheim Angels. Each, perhaps, would be a lesson in narrow opportunity, in the right-place, right-time spoils of years of minor-league grunt work, in the attitudinal requirements when asked to man every position but catcher.

Clay Bellinger was a career .193 hitter across 183 games, precisely two of those games with the Angels, the last two of his major league career. He hit six home runs for the 2000 Yankees, and appeared as a pinch-runner and/or defensive replacement for left fielder David Justice in each of the Yankees’ four World Series wins against the Mets. Cody was 5. Five years after his rookie season, Clay retired at 35 and became a firefighter. Cody set out to become a ballplayer.

He is long and lean, the only way the Los Angeles Dodgers seem to grow their prospects any more. He holds his eye contact while shaking hands, smiles easy and pleasant, and weathers the questions about his dad and the three weeks over which he’s batted .293 with seven homers and five doubles, and has a .370 on-base percentage and what is next, what is out there for a 21-year-old with that swing. The trick, of course, is to remain in the moment while everyone else imagines what this might become, to crowd into the corner of the batter’s box nearest the catcher and sort the hittable pitches from the ones that only look hittable, and then to wake up and start all over again.

Cody Bellinger is hitting .293 with seven home runs in his rookie season for the Dodgers. (Getty Images)
Cody Bellinger is hitting .293 with seven home runs in his rookie season for the Dodgers. (Getty Images)

If it seems like we’ve only recently been here before — the body type, the left-handed bat, the unusual power, the loping strides, the precocious skills, the polite hellos, the big-league bloodlines — maybe it’s because Corey Seager’s locker is just across the room.

“Usually when a guy comes up with those kinds of expectations, it gets overlooked how good of an actual baseball player he is,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said. “But he’s a really intelligent baseball player. It’s a maturity beyond his age, kind of what we saw from Seager. I mean, it’s a small sample size, but it seems like he really understands the game. There’s not a whole lot of rough edges there.

“It makes it easy for us,” added Turner, among the leaders in a clubhouse that has smoothed its own edges in recent seasons. “We don’t have to worry about him. You let him go out and do his thing.”

Two Dodgers coaches who’d eyed Bellinger with some curiosity the past two springs said the same about him this week; that the skills always looked good, that the ego always looked small, and that his game seems to have taken an even deeper breath in the big leagues. The place suits him. Beyond that, it is an admirable strategy to keep one’s head down and one’s words spare.

“Yeah, it’s kind of how I was raised, I guess,” Bellinger said. “I just try to respect the game and respect people as much as I can, knowing if I do that, then I’ll get some back, even when I am young. You see young guys come up and you don’t get the same respect, just because they’re kind of an idiot. But, for me, show respect to the guys who deserve it, like everyone up here, and hope I get some back, get some respect as a young guy.”

Then, well, hit. And when Joc Pederson gets hurt, play the outfield. And when Adrian Gonzalez gets hurt, play first base. And when Andrew Toles gets hurt and Gonzalez heals, go back to the outfield.

Bellinger said he’s allowed himself the few moments to look around, to raise his head between a couple pitches in left field or right, to think, well, wouldja look at that. It’s possible he’s been in some of these ballparks before, he said, but he’d have been too young to know it, or remember them. So much seems new while slightly familiar, and it’s not once occurred to him he may not yet belong.

“I think it’s just knowing my ability,” Bellinger said. “And knowing what I can do even when I’m not succeeding at it. Knowing that I’ll get out of the funk as soon as possible and get back to normal.”

He read a pair of raised eyebrows correctly and grinned.

“There’s still funks, man,” he said. “Maybe it doesn’t look like it. Sometimes there’s funks and you don’t realize it. Some days you’re going to wake up and lose the feeling of your load. That happens. You’re not going to have it for 162 games, you’re not going to feel great. During those times it’s just a matter of getting some hits and getting back to normal. Grinding it out.”

There’s value in that. The proof is in the box, hidden away and yet still a reminder there’ll always be a time and a place, and sometimes the real talent is to be there, then.

“Back then,” Bellinger said, “I was like, ‘That’s cool.’ But I didn’t know how cool it was, you know? I get it now. … And what he [my father] taught me was to respect the game on and off the field. Everything else will take care of itself.”

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