It wasn't surprising last week that Third Baseman Buddy Bell of Texas drove in the first and final runs of the Rangers' opening night victory and then rose from a sickbed 24 hours later to win another game. Bell usually does these things. A fair-haired boy in every respect, he hits, fields, hustles, coaches for the Boys' Club and would help old ladies across the street—if there were any pedestrians in Arlington, Texas.
But it was surprising that Bell, 31, was still playing for the Rangers. Rumors that he'd be traded started at the end of the 1982 season and continued through the last day of spring training. It seemed that everyone wanted him: the Orioles, the Dodgers, the White Sox, the Blue Jays, the Yankees, the Cardinals, the Reds, the Bad News Bears. "It made the winter pass quickly," says Bell. "Every day I'd pick up the papers and go somewhere else. My two oldest boys and I got a kick out of it. I was going to teams they'd been reading about, and we were all excited. I told the Rangers that if a deal was made, I wouldn't stand in the way, as long as they sent me to a good team."
Why wasn't he dealt? Logic and history argued that he should have been. "When a club goes way down [Texas was 57-48 in strike-shortened 1981 and 64-98 in 1982], it needs help and there's always the feeling you can make a deal with it," says Chicago White Sox General Manager Roland Hemond.
But, as it turned out, the Rangers weren't open for business. "We went on an internal improvement program based primarily on our minor league clubs," says the new Texas general manager, Joe Klein, a former player and executive in the Rangers' farm system. "I was interested in trading Buddy only because at one point last season he said that was what he wanted. I was hired the day after the season ended. The next day the phone calls started coming in. I heard from more than half the teams in baseball but never got or made a firm offer. We just talked. Maybe they were trying to feel me out because I was new, waiting until I made a mistake by asking for the wrong people."
And maybe Klein was afraid to give up the wrong people. There has been many a bad transaction in the Rangers' 12-year history—trading Len Barker and Bobby Bonds to Cleveland for Jim Kern and Larvell Blanks in 1978, for example—and it could be that Texas was afraid to risk another fiasco with its best player. "Buddy asked us to put a December 15 deadline on trading him," says Klein. "Afterward we listened to other clubs out of courtesy, but the more Buddy became exposed to our program and realized that we weren't going to purge veteran players, the less he wanted to be traded."
Well, maybe the best trades are the ones that are never made. In sweeping a three-game series from Chicago last week, Texas got impressive performances from some supposedly washedup veterans (pitchers Rick Honeycutt and Jon Matlack, to name two) and promising youngsters. In one game the Rangers used six players with a year or less of big league experience. At the end of the week, they had a 5-1 record and led the American League West.
As usual, Bell was a pivotal figure. With Texas down 3-0 in the first inning of the opener, new Manager Doug Rader told Mike Richardt to steal second. As Richardt took off, Bell slapped an outside pitch down the right-field line for a run-scoring double. "There was no hit-and-run on and it was a lucky hit," Bell said. The Rangers caught up in the sixth, passed the Sox on Larry Parrish's homer in the seventh and finished them off 5-3 when Bell scored Billy Sample with an eighth-inning single.
By the next day Bell had caught the flu from his wife and four children. "That'll just make him ornerier," said an old friend, Chicago Pitcher Jim Kern, who has played with Bell for 11 of the last 14 years, in Sumter, S.C., Cleveland and Texas. Bell had fluids pumped intravenously into his body for two hours, took a nap, and, sure enough, was ornerier than ever. Not noted for his speed, he nonetheless had two infield hits. He drove in Bucky Dent with the game-winning run by smashing a two-out fifth-inning bouncer off the chest of Third Baseman Vance Law and reaching base with a gallant if unnecessary headfirst slide. In the seventh, he beat out a roller down the third-base line, took second on a wild pitch, moved deftly to third on a fly to left and scored the last run of the game on an error, as Texas won 4-1. "Well," he said sheepishly, "I can run forward."
That's just one of his many talents. Playing for generally weak teams in Cleveland (1972-78) and Texas, Bell has improved steadily. His lifetime average is .285, but in his four years with the Rangers he has batted .304 and won a Gold Glove every season.
"He's the guy I'd build a franchise around," says Kern, echoing a statement once made by Detroit Manager Sparky Anderson. "Defensively he's an interesting combination of Graig Nettles and Aurelio Rodriguez: He has Nettles' reactions and range, and Rodriguez' arm." And, says former Gold Glove Third Baseman Rader, a ballet dancer's feet. "To catch a ball properly, you need good feet," adds Rader. "If you don't get yourself in a position to catch properly, you won't do it. Buddy doesn't have foot speed, but he's got excellent agility for a third baseman."
With all of that, why does he get so little recognition? Says Kern: "It's partly because he's played for mediocre teams in parks that aren't great for hitters, but I think the main reason is, he's so smooth he makes everything look simple."
But to Bell the game is simple. "I'm probably one of the least scientific players of all time," he says. "If you think too much, you make the game too complicated. You hit the ball and catch the ball, and that's about it. When I go to clinics, the other instructors don't think I'm very bright."
Bell is the son of Gus Bell, an outfielder for the Pirates, Reds, Mets and Braves who hit 206 homers in 15 big league seasons (1950-64); they're the only father-and-son combination that has played in as many as eight All-Star Games between them. "I was always around a lot of players, and it helped me because I wasn't in awe," says Buddy.
"He was more in awe at first in the minors than when he made it to the majors," says Gus, 54, a jovial sales manager for a temporary-help service in Cincinnati. "But a father can do only so much. Buddy made it because of his desire."
"Well, I never wanted to do anything but be an athlete," says Buddy. "More than anything, I enjoy the fun. It's not so much on the field, but before and after the game. We're still kids. People come off the street and ask themselves, 'Are these guys 30 or 10?' But I think you should stay as young as you can for as long as you can."
Finishing in the second division virtually every year can put gray hair on the most carefree player, though. "Realism and optimism aren't the same thing," he says, "but you have to be optimistic. I think we'll be O.K. If the club shows patience with what we've got, we could have a gold mine."
The Rangers already have a gem at third base.