It doesn’t take long to make a lasting impression that sticks with someone throughout his professional baseball career. Some of the things Derek Bell said over the course of his career surprised many and outraged others. This did not seem to faze Bell in the slightest. “What can I say?” Bell would ask. “I just have to go out there and be Derek, and Derek’s a pretty easygoing guy. I’m not going to let anybody intimidate me.”1 Bell’s childhood hero Dwight Gooden perhaps understood Derek the most. “Derek wants to be liked by everybody. He’s an easygoing guy, easy to get along with, but he’s very sensitive. He needs to know the team is behind him all the way. He’s one of those guys that needs to hear it constantly, especially when he’s struggling.”2
Derek Nathaniel Bell was born in Tampa, Florida, on December 11, 1968. He grew up with his mother, Chestine Bell, in Tampa and never really knew much about his biological father, Jimmie Lee Jackson. His father met Chestine while she was a freshman at Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Florida. Jimmie had been a quarterback in high school and Derek’s mother once said that she had caught a pass from him. “Derek was that pass,” she said.3 She moved back to Tampa after her freshman year to live with her parents.
On April 24, 1976, Jackson was found dead in his Manhattan apartment with two gunshot wounds to the head. Chestine found out about Jimmie’s death seven months after his funeral when she contacted the family to inquire why Jimmie had not sent toys for Derek’s Christmas. She kept the news of Jimmie’s death from Derek until he was 14, when Jimmie’s sister, Lillie Golden, told him what happened. “He was in college so I didn’t get a chance to see him,” Bell said. “Being that young, I know I had (a father) and I knew he was in college. Then they said ‘No, he passed away’ and then I was without a dad.”4 Bell never looked for anyone to take the place of the father he never really knew. “My mom’s my mom and my dad; she’s two people in one.”5 It would be his mother, who worked as a medical records technician, as much as anyone, who gave Bell the support he needed once he started playing baseball.
Bell’s interest in baseball started in a section of Tampa that produced over 35 African American major leaguers. The Belmont Heights Little League was where Chestine wanted Derek to play. Chestine used her mother’s address in the College Hill Projects to make sure that Derek qualified to play in the league. “We never lived in Belmont Heights,” Chestine said in response to reports that Bell had lived there, “but his grandmother did, and she was my sole babysitter.”6 Bell joined the league when he was 9. It was there that he met his best friend, Gary Sheffield. Bell grew to a height of 5-feet-9 over the next three years and into what the boys in the league called a monster “because that is what boys call boys who look like grownups.” Bell’s coach had to carry his birth certificate around to prove that he was a kid.7
Sixty-four boys who have played in the Little League World Series have gone on to play in the major leagues. Bell is one of 14 to play in both the Little League World Series and the major-league World Series.8 Bell and Sheffield were teammates on the 1980 Little League World Series team that lost to Taiwan’s Hualien County in the championship game, 4-3. A year later, Bell became the first two-time Little League World Series player who would become a major leaguer when he played on the 1981 Little League World Series team from Tampa. Bell struck out nine in five innings, but his Tampa team lost 4-2 to Taichung, Taiwan.9 Bell commented after being drafted by the Blue Jays in 1987 how important his time in Little League was in making him good enough to be a professional player. “My time playing for Belmont Heights was very important,” said Bell. “That’s where I started when I was 9, and if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be where I’m at now.”10
A few years after Bell’s Little League career ended, University of Miami baseball coach Ron Fraser showed up at baseball tryouts at C. Leon King High School in Tampa to watch Bell take batting practice. Bell took two swings and then Fraser introduced himself to Bell, and told Bell’s coach, Jim Macaluso, that he would give four guys off his roster for this one guy. Macaluso later said that Fraser told him “he had only seen one other high school player with a better swing and that was Dave Winfield. He told me back then that this kid would make the big leagues.”11 Bell played center field his senior season at King, and he led the team in hitting with a .440 average and set a school record with 30 RBIs.12
The June 1987 amateur draft started with the Seattle Mariners picking Ken Griffey Jr. In the second round the Toronto Blue Jays selected Bell, by now a 6-foot-2, 190-pound senior center fielder at King High School. Bell signed a contract and was assigned to St. Catharines of the short-season Class-A New York-Penn League. “It feels great,” said Bell. “I just want to play baseball, be successful, and get to pro ball.”13 He batted .264 for St. Catharines with 10 home runs and 42 RBIs his first season. Bobby Mattick, coordinator of Blue Jays minor-league development, when asked about Bell’s progress as a hitter after his first season in the minors said, “He was hitting .240 for a while there, but (manager Joe) Lonett was saying it was the hardest .240 he’s ever seen. This kid’s right out of high school and he was hitting breaking balls in that league – the better of the two rookie leagues we’re in. It’s really something. The boy’s got a chance to be an outstanding hitter.”14Baseball America ranked Bell the seventh-best major-league prospect in the league.15 Bell continued to impress over the next few years, winning the Most Valuable Player Award in 1988 while playing for Myrtle Beach of the South Atlantic League, and the International League MVP Award in 1991 while with the Syracuse Chiefs. He was named the Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year in 1991, when he hit .346 in 119 games for the Chiefs.16 (He also played in 18 games in two short stints with the Blue Jays and batted .143.)
During his first trip to the majors (June 28 to July 14), Bell went 1-for-17, a .059 average, reflecting that he was used only sparingly and that most of his at-bats were against Randy Johnson and David West. To Bell, he was not given a fair chance to prove himself. When the Blue Jays sent him back to the minors, Bell did not mince words when he told the press that he was not happy about being sent down. “I was shocked and upset when Cito Gaston called me into his office to tell me I was going down again,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d be sent down anymore. I thought it was too soon to give up on me. They’ve given a lot of other guys a lot more chance to prove themselves.”17 During his second call-up, at the end of the season, Bell went 3-for-11 with no extra-base hits. His first season in the majors was one from which Bell wanted to move on.
Bell arrived at Blue Jays spring training in Dunedin, Florida, in 1992 and made quite the impression. He sported a clean-shaven head and spent time talking trash with his teammates. He gave the impression, by one reporter’s account, of being “the most merry fellow at the Toronto Blue Jay camp.”18 The reporter, Rosie DiManno of the Toronto Star, went on to say that Bell did not act like some rookies who come to camp “all shy and reticent, minding their manners and keeping their distance. Bell is in your face, in everyone’s face, and yapping up a garrulous storm.”19
Bell won the left field job out of spring training in ’92 but his first season in the majors almost ended as soon as it began. In the second inning of the second game of the season, Bell fractured his hamate bone when he fouled off a pitch from Tigers starter Frank Tanana. He returned to the club from the disabled list on May 9 where he started in left field and went 1-for-4 with an infield single against the California Angels in Anaheim.20 He struggled a bit when he returned but he hit .310 in his final 71 at-bats at the end of the season. General manager Pat Gillick praised Bell for his maturity during the playoffs in key moments that helped the Blue Jays win the World Series.21
Bell was on the receiving end of one of the major leagues’ most famous practical jokes. On October 4, 1992, during Fan Appreciation Day, Joe Carter and Dave Winfield drove Bell’s Jeep out onto the field and it was announced that the car was to be given away to a fan in the stands. “In Toronto, they gave us cars. Honda was a sponsor, so everyone had the same car. But Derek decided to drive his car. And he loved his Jeep. And he talked about his sound system – the sound system cost more than the car itself!” Carter said.22 Bell got his car back, but the prank became one of the funniest moments in baseball history.
Bell did play a role in helping the Blue Jays win the World Series. He drew critical walks that led to the winning run scored in Game Four of the American League Championship Series against the Oakland Athletics and the tying run in Game Two of the World Series against the Atlanta Braves. Those moments and his batting average of .310 after the All-Star break did not prevent his time with the club soon coming to an end. Bell’s over-the-top demeanor in 1992 and into 1993 became somewhat tiresome for management and some of his teammates. Bell did not see the problem. “I’ve always been this way, smiling and talking trash. Sliding into home plate, gee, I used to do that when we won games in Little League. Why should I change? Everybody around here likes my enthusiasm. Isn’t that better than if I were mean all the time and never smiled at anybody?”23
GM Gillick told the press that Bell needed to learn how to control his enthusiasm a bit, saying: “He’s a good kid. And I don’t want to stifle his enthusiasm. But I think he’s starting to learn that there are situations where you have to control yourself, where you have to concentrate on the job you’re supposed to be doing. It’s just a matter of channeling that enthusiasm.”24
The final straw may have come during a 1993 spring-training game against the Tigers when manager Gaston publicly criticized Bell for letting a lazy fly ball fall in front of him for a hit and getting doubled off second base on a routine popup. “Maybe you can get away with that kind of play in Triple A somewhere,” Gaston said. “That’s just being careless. Everybody likes the kid, and I know he wants to do well, but I think he gets caught up in trying to look good rather than play good.”25 Bell was traded to the San Diego Padres less than 48 hours later.
Bell had two solid seasons with the Padres, coming into his own offensively. In 1993 he hit .262 with 21 home runs, 72 RBIs, and 26 stolen bases. In the strike-shortened 1994 season, in 108 games he hit .311 with 14 home runs and 54 RBIs, with 24 steals. Despite the offensive outburst, he was traded at the end of 1994 to the Houston Astros in a cost-cutting move by the Astros. Houston manager Terry Collins liked the idea of adding Bell’s bat to his potent lineup. He dismissed the label that Bell was a good player who came with a lot of baggage. “Players can get tags put on them. People say, ‘This guy is going to be a good player’ or ‘He has a chance to be a good player.’ I think Derek Bell has proven he’s a good player. He’s a complete player,” Collins said.26
Bell also dismissed the baggage label. “I’m living for today and the future,” he said. “I don’t even have a clue (how the label) got started. I’ve never heard any of my past teammates or managers say I didn’t run the ball out, didn’t hustle or give 100 percent all the time. I guess when you get rid of a guy, you have to have some excuse.”27 While in Houston, Bell met Tom McCraw, the Astros hitting coach, whom Bell described as the closest thing to a father-figure he ever had. McCraw acknowledged that he treated Bell “just like my son. I told him ‘I’m going to tell you what’s going wrong. I’m going to tell you how to do it.’ He’d huff and he’d puff, then he’d do it.” Bell once made a baserunning mistake and McCraw reprimanded him in the dugout. Bell cringed. “He said, ‘Don’t holler at me, I’m sensitive,’” McCraw recalled. “I realized I went past the line and backed it up.”28
While with the Astros, Bell became one of the most lethal of the Astros “Killer B’s” alongside Jeff Bagwell, Sean Berry, and Craig Biggio. He was an MVP candidate his first year with the team in 1995, and in 1998 he had arguably his best season as a major leaguer when he hit .314 with 22 homers, 108 RBIs, and 111 runs scored. Despite his successes on the field, Bell could not help but get himself in trouble. On July 15, 1999, the day Astros manager Larry Dierker returned to managerial duties after brain surgery, Bell complained because he was batting sixth, not second. This soured Bell’s relationship with the club and the fans and was a contributing factor in his eventual trade to the New York Mets at the end of the season. Bell claimed the whole situation was misunderstood. “I’m a team player, and I felt that I couldn’t hit-and-run and do the things I’m capable of doing from the six slot,” he said. “That’s the only thing I was upset about. Is that selfish? I want to win so badly. The only way I thought we could do that was with me batting second, making things go.”29
Bell’s salary jumped dramatically in Houston. He made $385,000 while with the Padres in 1994. His salary climbed to $1.45 million his first year with the Astros. By the time he left for the Mets in 2000, his salary was $4.5 million annually. This helped feed Bell’s desire to live a flashy lifestyle.
Bell had a pretty good season in his one campaign with the Mets and it was the second and final time he made it to the World Series as a player, but it was his lifestyle that all the media in New York wanted to hear about. Bell purchased a yacht named “Bell 14” (for his number when he played with the Astros) and took it with him when he moved to New York. He lived in it while playing for the Mets because the cost of living was high in the city. Bell said he had more important things to spend his money on like his auto detailing business in Tampa called DB 14.30 Sports Illustrated, in a piece about Bell’s lifestyle, wrote that he had over 2,000 hip-hop CDs, 100 DVDs, games for his Sony PlayStation and Sega Dreamcast, and over 100 pairs of alligator shoes. He also owned a gold-and-diamond baseball pendant and sparkling diamond studs, one for each ear. Also included was a six-bedroom house in Tampa, a four-bedroom house in a Tampa suburb for his mother, a 2000 Mercedes-Benz S500, a 1999 Ford Expedition, and a $50,000 diamond ring. “Bell also gave his 22-year-old half-brother Marlon a ‘99 Mercedes,” the magazine wrote. Finally, a 2000 Bentley Azure. “The Rolls is fresh,” said Bell. “Florida State maroon, with a sweet interior, yo.”31
Todd Zeile was a teammate of Bell’s with the Mets during the 2000 season. Zeile said that Bell would have custom suits made for him on road trips. “The suits were orange, green, purple, white and black and they all had matching belts and shoes to go with them. The key to this was that he would only wear them once. Every time he wore a suit, that would be it. He would discard it. He would give it away.”32
A free agent after the 2000 season, Bell signed a two-year, $9.75 million deal with the Pirates. He played in only 46 games in an injury-plagued 2001, where he had 27 hits and a .173 batting average, and was demoted to Triple-A Nashville. During spring training in 2002, Pirates GM Dave Littlefield wanted Bell to compete for the starting right field position with Armando Rios, Craig Wilson, and Rob Mackowiak. Bell responded by making a comment to the press that essentially ended his professional career. “Nobody told me I was in competition,” he said. “If there is competition, somebody better let me know. If there is competition, they better eliminate me out of the race and go ahead and do what they’re going to do with me. I ain’t never hit in spring training and I never will. Ask Littlefield and ask manager Lloyd McClendon if I’m in competition. If it ain’t settled with me out there, then they can trade me. I ain’t going out there to hurt myself in spring training battling for a job. If it is a competition, then I’m going into ‘Operation Shutdown.’ Tell them exactly what I said. I haven’t competed for a job since 1991. If I don’t start, then I guess I’ll be out of here.”33
Bell left the team on March 29 and was released two days later. The Associated Press reported that “when a Pirates spokesman saw Bell leaving the clubhouse, he asked him if he had any message to pass on. Bell said only, ‘I got onto my yacht and rode off into the sunset.’”34 Bell’s yacht at the time was docked at the Twin Dolphin Marina on the Manatee River near Bradenton, Florida. The Pirates paid him over $4 million after he left the team. Mark Madden of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette commented, “Derek Bell becomes the ultimate Pirate: lives on a boat and steals money.”35
In a 2020 interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Bell contended that the “Operation Shutdown” quote was a hip-hop term and he wished that the reporter, Robert Dvorchak, had asked him to clarify what he meant. “I worded it wrong, but I’ve always been that way,” Bell said. “I say what’s on my mind.”36 In the interview, Bell did apologize to Pittsburgh fans for not living up to the terms of his contract. “I do want to apologize and let Pirates fans know that I’m very, very sorry that I didn’t live up to that contract. They expected me to do more, and I didn’t get a chance to do more. It haunts me to this day that I didn’t get a chance to show ’em because Pittsburgh is a great city. It’s a steel town. They love their sports. They love their players. They just want you to do well.”37
Bell largely avoided off-field issues throughout his career. When something went wrong either in his personal life or on the field, he often retreated to his home or his hotel room and played video games. It was his routine. Dwight Gooden and Gary Sheffield credited his mother for raising him that way. “For a long time, he was an only child, and I kept him shielded,” said Chestine Bell. “Just go to school, play baseball, and come home. You’ve got to try and keep him on the straight and narrow.”38
The straight and narrow path seemed to abandon Bell a bit after his playing career. Bell sold the Bell 14 yacht because it became too much for him to handle. “It got old.”39 Bell also fell victim to a few drug issues in 2006 and 2008. “Things happen,” he said. “I was retired. Sometimes, when you retire, you want to have fun. I never got in trouble when I played ball. I never did drugs when I played ball. I ran into a little rut. You do the wrong thing, and things happen. I’ve moved past that. Lesson learned. I’m moving on way beyond that.”40
Bell’s health took a hit as well, but he didn’t stop engaging with fans. He regularly does autograph shows and is often asked to write “Operation Shutdown” on hats and balls. “I’m a fan-friendly person.”41He had to quit helping his good friend, Ty Griffin, coach baseball at King High School and Tampa Catholic High School because of cataracts and the demands on his arms and legs. As of 2020, Bell’s fiancée had to help him get around because of his cataracts.
Bell never made an All-Star team but his play on the field is not something that people will remember him for. Brash, showy, and full of enthusiasm, Bell’s magnetism and energy in the clubhouse kept his teammates loose. In a YouTube video titled The MLB Player Who Lived on a Yacht During His Career, the narrator, “Mike,” describes Bell as “possibly the most unique off-the-field presence in baseball history.” The 9½-minute video details some of the stories that the narrator feels makes Bell’s career unique. He ends the video by saying that Bell’s story should inspire others because Bell came from nothing and had a prosperous and successful major-league baseball career. “But that is not what he is gonna be remembered for,” Mike says. “In this story, talking about the players analytics isn’t the most important thing about them. The important thing is what made them unique as a human being and highlighting that. Sometimes baseball fans don’t do enough of that. They really don’t make them like Derek Bell anymore.”42
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com and Sports Illustrated.
1 Rosie DiManno, “Derek Bell Can Sure Talk a Good Game,” Toronto Star, March 4, 1992: C1.
2 Tyler Kepner, “Still Room to Grow: For Mets’ Bell, Numbers Haven’t Matched His Power,” New York Times, March 12, 2000: SP7.
3 Thomas Hill, “Bringing Up Derek: Bell Never Bothered by Life with No Father,” New York Daily News, May 21, 2000.
8 Three of the 14 (Ed Vosberg, Jason Varitek, and Michael Conforto) have played in the Little League World Series, the College World Series, and the Major League World Series. See “Current and Former Major Leaguers Who Have Played in the Little League Baseball World Series,” Little League, accessed April 27, 2022. https://www.littleleague.org/who-we-are/alumni/major-leaguers-played-llbws/.
9 Jane Gross, “Tampa Team in Final of Little League Series,” New York Times, August 28, 1981: A15. “Taiwan Nine Retains Title,” New York Times, August 30, 1981: 204.
10 Brian Landman, “Put Me in, Coach // Life Lessons Are First on Baseball Diamond,” St. Petersburg Times, June 14, 1987: 22.
11 Erik Erlendsson, “Derek Bell Still Has That Swing,” Tampa Tribune, October 10, 1999.
12 Brian Landman, “Despite Disappointing Loss, King Had a Great Season,” St. Petersburg Times, May 3, 1987: 9.
13 “King’s Bell Signs Contract with Blue Jays,” St. Petersburg Times, June 12, 1987: 5.
14 Allan Ryan, “Blue Jays Stars of the Future,” Toronto Star, September 13, 1987: E28.
15 Neil MacCarl, “Blue Jays’ Other Bell Awaiting His Chance to Play in the Big Leagues,” Toronto Star, February 28, 1988: G8.
16 Allan Ryan, “Blue Jays Chase Seattle Reliever,” Toronto Star, December 11, 1991: C6; Dave Perkins, “Is Derek Bell the Solution to Jays’ Woes?” Toronto Star, December 9, 1991: D1.
17 Marty York, “Derek Bell Assails Demotion to Farm // ‘Wasn’t Given Fair Shot,’ Says .059 Hitter After Being Sent Back to Syracuse,” Globe and Mail (Toronto), July 19, 1991: C13.
18 Rosie DiManno, “Derek Bell Can Sure Talk a Good Game.”
19 Rosie DiManno.
20 Tom Slater, “Jays Lose Tough Duel,” Toronto Star, May 10, 1992: G1.
21 Brian Landman, “Jays’ Bell Hustles Back Into Action After Injury,” St. Petersburg Times, May 3, 1992: 5C; Rosie DiManno, “Bell Bubbles with Enthusiasm // Blue Jays’ Young Outfielder Makes No Apologies for Antics,” Toronto Star, March 4, 1993: D4.
22 Larry Brown, “Joe Carter Shares Story Behind Epic Derek Bell Car Prank,” Larry Brown Sports, December 17, 2019. https://larrybrownsports.com/baseball/joe-carter-story-epic-derek-bell-car-prank/528745.
23 Rosie DiManno, “Bell Bubbles with Enthusiasm.”
24 Rosie DiManno, “Bell Bubbles with Enthusiasm.”
25 Jeff Pearlman, “Yo Ho Ho! Thrown Overboard by the Astros, the Mets’ Hot-Hittin’, Hip-Hoppin’ Derek Bell Has Been Cruisin’ Since He Docked In New York,” Sports Illustrated, May 22, 2000. https://vault.si.com/vault/2000/05/22/yo-ho-ho-thrown-overboard-by-the-astros-the-mets-hot-hittin-hip-hoppin-derek-bell-has-been-cruisin-since-he-docked-in-new-york; Ronald Blum, “Mets Hope Hampton Is the Answer: New York Acquires 22-Game Winner, Along with Derek Bell from the Houston Astros,” Vancouver (British Columbia) Sun, December 24, 1999: H12.
26 Bill Chastain, “Present perfect; Others May Have Doubted Derek Bell in the Past, but His Manager Calls the Astros’ Outfielder a ‘Complete Player,’” Tampa Tribune, August 15, 1995.
33 Robert Dvorchak, “Pirates Finally part with Bell,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.com Sports, March 30, 2002. https://old.post-gazette.com/pirates/20020330bucs3.asp; Craig Calcaterra, “Happy Anniversary to ‘Operation Shutdown,’” NBC Sports, March 19, 2014. https://mlb.nbcsports.com/2014/03/19/happy-anniversary-to-operation-shutdown/; Jason Mackey, “It Haunts Me to This Day,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 15, 2020: C1. .
34 Associated Press, “Bell Packs His Bags and Leaves the Pirates,” New York Times, March 31, 2002: G8.
35 Mark Madden, “Baker’s Son Gives Us a Series Moment,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.com, October 26, 2002. https://old.post-gazette.com/sports/columnists/20021026madden1026p1.asp.
36 Mackey, “It Haunts Me to This Day.”
37 Mackey, “It Haunts Me to This Day.”
38 Kepner, “Still Room to Grow.”
39 Mackey, “It Haunts Me to This Day.”
40 Larry Brown, “Derek Bell Has One Classic Mug Shot,” Larry Brown Sports, December 2, 2008. https://larrybrownsports.com/darwin-nominations/derek-bell-mug-shot-drugs/4089. Jason Mackey, “It Haunts Me to This Day.”
41 Mackey, “It Haunts Me to This Day.”