PORT CHARLOTTE -- Heath Bell opened pack after pack of Topps baseball cards the morning of the first full-squad workout of the spring hoping to find one of himself photo-shopped into a Tampa Bay Rays jersey.
But Bell found cards of a handful of his new teammates, which he taped to the nameplates above the corresponding lockers.
After 10 years in the big leagues, a monster contract, three All-Star Games, two appearances in the World Baseball Classic for Team USA and one public fallout with Ozzie Guillen, his manager in Miami, Bell still gets a kick out of playing baseball.
“I'm very blessed,” Bell said Friday before making his Rays debut in a 4-2 loss to Baltimore. “The journey keeps going. I don't feel like the dream is going to end any time soon. I'm just along for the ride.”
Right now, the ride has taken Bell to the Rays bullpen, generally regarded as one of the tops in baseball. He adds an experienced arm in late-innings or whatever situation manager Joe Maddon deems appropriate for Bell's skills.
Bell has done everything a pitcher can do except start during his first 10 years in the big leagues. He's prepared to do everything but start this season for Maddon.
“I'm not concerned about my role,” he said. “I'm concerned about keeping the ball down and getting people out. If I end up closing, great. If I end up setting up, great. If I end up being the long guy, great. The bullpen is only as good as the weakest guy, and I don't want to be the weak guy.”
What Bell would like is to lead the Rays in appearances, a tough trick considering his teammate is Joel Peralta, who leads the majors in appearances over the past three years. But the Rays traded for Bell in December with the idea of reducing Peralta's workload to keep him fresher for what they expect to be another postseason run.
“We appreciate that he's coming in what that attitude,” Maddon said. “I think that kind of mindset is going to set him up for a killer season.”
Like a number of relievers to arrive in Tampa Bay over the years, Bell comes with some baggage.
He had a 4.11 ERA and allowed a career-high 12 home runs last season in Arizona. Maddon said those numbers were a bit twisted because Bell was pitching in a homer friendly home ballpark. Bell had a 6.83 ERA in 29 innings pitched at Chase Field and a 1.96 ERA in 36 2/3 innings away from Chase.
“When you look beyond that, we thought he did a really good job,” Maddon said.
Bell has a reputation as being the funny man in the clubhouse. At the 2011 All-Star Game in Phoenix, Bell sprinted into the bullpen and slid into the mound before his turn to pitch. He said he thought the fans would get a kick out of that.
Maddon said that will play big in his clubhouse.
Bell also had a very public dispute with Guillen during the ill-fated 2012 season. Bell was part of the Marlins offseason spending spree before that year. Yet Bell, like a lot of his new teammates, struggled. He feuded with Guillen. Before one game, the clubhouse radio, tuned to Guillen's pregame show, was turned up when Guillen was responding to criticism from Bell with his own criticism of the Bell.
Bell later told reports he lost the respect of his teammates.
“I try not to talk about the past,” Bell said. “I've done some wrong in my past, and I got to own up to it. I don't blame anybody. I blame myself. But I think sometimes you go through some bumps and it makes you a better person, a better player, a better pitcher.”
Maddon is not worried about Bell's past resurfacing in his clubhouse. For one, Maddon works well with players who have reputations of being clubhouse problems. (See Escobar, Yunel). Also, Maddon called Buddy Black, his close friend who managed Bell during Bell's years in San Diego. Black spoke highly of Bell, Maddon said.
“That's all I needed to hear,” Maddon said.
Bell said he's enjoyed his first few weeks as a Ray. He likes talking with the younger pitchers. He likes the relaxed, yet business-like approach to the workday. He's looking forward to the challenge of pitching in the AL East.
He awaits the next chapter in his journey.
“I think there's a few good years left,” he said. “I can't see the light at the end of the tunnel. It's nice.”