RIP to Mike Bell, a part of the three-generation Bell baseball family and the bench coach for the Minnesota Twins. He died in Arizona on March 26 at the age of 46 from kidney cancer. He was diagnosed with cancer in January 2021 and underwent surgery to remove a kidney and part of his liver. While the Twins were in spring training in Florida, Bell remained at home in Arizona but still communicated regularly with manager Rocco Baldelli and other Twins staff. Bell played for the Cincinnati Reds in 2000 before spending 13 years in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization as a minor-league manager and vice president of player development. He took the Twins’ bench coach job in late 2019.
“He was an amazing bench coach because he was amazing with people. He emotionally connected with so many of us here,” Baldelli told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “His impact will last for many, many years. He’ll affect all of us forever.”
Michael John Bell was born in Cincinnati on December 7, 1974. His grandfather Gus Bell played 15 years in the majors, father Buddy Bell was a Gold Glove third baseman and five-time All-Star, and brother David Bell played for 12 years and is in his third year as manager of the Cincinnati Reds.
Mike, as you’d imagine, grew up around major-league baseball, playing around the Texas Rangers clubhouse as a five-year-old and shagging fly balls as he got older. He and the other Rangers’ kids would make a ball of wadded-up tape and play in the parking lot until the team’s equipment manager Joe Macko would chase them off. Bell starred at Moeller High School in Cincinnati and was drafted in the First Round of the 1993 Amateur Draft — he was the 30th overall pick. He had agreed to play at the University of Mississippi, but the chance to play in one of his father’s old teams was too much to pass up. “When I heard that the Rangers drafted me, I couldn’t stop smiling the rest of the day. I don’t know if I’ve stopped yet,” he said.
Rangers scouting director Sandy Johnson scouted Bell in 1993 and immediately saw the family resemblance. “It was just like looking at Buddy Bell,” he said. Mike was proud of the comparison, though he didn’t think he deserved it. “Hopefully, someday I can be half the player he was. If I can, I think I got a pretty good career.”
Bell debuted with the Gulf Coast Rangers in 1993, and Buddy was there to see his first game. It wasn’t just a sentimental reason; the elder Bell was the director of minor league instruction for the Sox. Bell hit .317 for Gulf Coast that year and slowly moved up the organization. He was a .260s hitter, and when he moved up to AA Tulsa in 1996, he reached double-digits in home runs for the first time with 16. By then, David had reached the majors with the Cardinals, making the Bells the second three-generation baseball family behind the Boones.
Bell felt no pressure to continue the family tradition. “My grandfather and my dad never put and pressure on me,” he told Baseball America. “But I love baseball. I enjoy playing the game, and I enjoy being around parks. It feels natural because that’s the way I grew up. I don’t want to say it’s all I know, but it’s close to it.”
Bell reached AAA with Texas by 1997, but within the course of the offseason, he was a part of four different franchises. First, he was traded from Texas to the Anaheim Angels for pitcher Matt Perisho on October 31, 1997. Then he was picked by the Arizona Diamondbacks on November 18 as part of the expansion draft. Finally he was traded from Arizona to the New York Mets on February 10, 1998. Bell was with the Mets organization for two seasons. He hit well, but fielding was a problem, as it was with the Rangers. He was drafted as a third baseman, but he committed many errors there. The Mets tried him at multiple positions in the infield and outfield to find a good spot for him.
Bell got off to a great start in 1999 with the AAA Norfolk Tides as a second baseman and first baseman. He had a .274 batting average going into June, and then he tore ligaments in three fingers on his throwing hand. He was lost for the season, and the Mets let him leave the organization as a free agent at the end of the year. He signed with the Cincinnati Reds for 2000 and reported to the AAA Louisville Bats. He returned to third base, and thanks to working with his coaches and the rest of his ballplaying family (younger brother Rick was playing in the Dodgers organization, too), he became more comfortable in the field.
Bell had one of the best seasons of his career in 2000, batting .268 with 22 home runs and 78 RBIs. He still had a low .928 fielding percentage at third base, but he impressed Norfolk manager Dave Miley with his abilities. Ironically, the one thing keeping him at AAA was the fact that Cincinnati had Aaron Boone — of the Boone family — as the starting third baseman.
“Aaron and I have talked about the whole thing,” Bell said. “Our families are pretty similar.”
Bell was brought up to the majors for the first time in July of 2000. Though the Boones had sent three generations to the majors first, the Bells were the first to have three generations play for the same team. Bell went hitless in a couple of pinch-hitting appearances and got the first start of his career against Arizona on July 23. He singled off pitchers Brian Anderson and Russ Springer in four at-bats before he was sent back to Louisville. He returned to Cincinnati in September to act as a pinch-hitter and third baseman. In his first game back, he hit a pinch-hit home run off Montreal reliever Steve Kline. His second and last home run came on September 27 in Milwaukee, and it was a pretty significant shot. It made County Stadium the only ballpark where three generations of the Bell family had homered. That very night, David Bell hit a home run of his own in Seattle.
“I talked to my Dad (Wednesday) night,” Bell told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “I think he was as happy as me or Dave. He really worries about us. When we both have a good night, it makes it a little easier. He can relax for a day.”
Bell played in 19 games for the Reds and had a .222/.323/.444 slash line. He had 6 hits in 27 at-bats and homered twice, with 4 RBIs and 5 runs scored. He also walked 4 times. He played a total of 49-2/3 innings at third base and had a .900 fielding percentage.
Bell was granted free agency at the end of the season. He played in the minors for the Rockies, Diamondbacks, White Sox and Cardinals through 2005, when he was 30 years old. In 13 seasons in the minor leagues, Bell had a lifetime .265 batting average and hit 135 home runs. He rejoined the Diamondbacks organization, of which he was a member for about 11 weeks in 1997 and ’98. He managed in the low minors for three years and hoped to serve as an example to his players. When his named was listed in the Mitchell Report on players who had taken performance-enhancing drugs, he was upfront and honest about it. “I have a chance to show people that I made a mistake,” he told the Visalia Times-Delta. “Things are tough at times, but you gotta persevere through it. I can’t take back what I did, but I can turn it into a positive.”
Bell then served as a field coordinator and farm director before taking on the role of VP of player development. Diamondbacks general manager Mike Hazen worked closely with Bell during this time. He noted that a person in Bell’s position frequently got to tell players they were going to the majors. On the worst days, he would have to tell a player they were being released.
“He had such a way of connecting with so many players,” Hazen told ArizonaSports.com. “More impressively, the times he had to talk through the harder things with their families, or what they were dealing with off the field or [the fact] that they weren’t going to be a major league baseball player.”
The Twins hired Bell in 2019 at the bench coach, replacing Derek Shelton after he had been hired as the next Pirates manager. Bell had interviewed for managerial positions in the past, and this move seemed like a good way to get him on the pathway to a future job. But Bell took his role seriously and flew out to Rhode Island to meet with Baldelli before spring training in 2020 just to plan the camp.
Derek Falvey, the team’s president of baseball operations, noted Bell’s contributions to the Twins in the year he was with the team. “The beauty of baseball is, it becomes a family. Mike’s been a huge member of our family in the short time he was with us. To think he created the bonds in our organization that he did in such a short time, it’s just incredible. Many of our staff members are taking on a lot of the responsibilities that Mike had, in terms of baseball. But we’re never going to replace the person.”
Bell is survived by his wife, Kelly, and children Luke, Mikaela and Madeline.
For more information: Minneapolis Star-Tribune