TORONTO — George Bell, alone in the Toronto Blue Jays' clubhouse, is dressing slowly for batting practice. A reporter approaches warily. Disturbing things can happen when the Bell tolls.
He may, for example, direct a karate kick at the opposing pitcher. He may throw a bat in anger because of his position in the lineup. He may bump umpires, berate them and accuse them of discriminating against Canadian teams and Dominican players. He may greet reporters with a malevolent stare and chase them away with maledictions.
Then, too, wondrous things can happen when the Bell tolls. He is, for example, second in the American League with 47 home runs and first in runs batted in with 134. He is among the league's top hitters at .310. He has virtually carried the Blue Jays into this weekend's showdown with the Detroit Tigers for the Eastern Division title.
He has a club-high 16 game-winning hits; he batted .405 in September, and he seems certain to outpoll Tiger shortstop Alan Trammell in the voting for the American League's Most Valuable Player.
He is also genuinely respected, admired and liked by teammates, and is regarded as a modern-day saint in the Dominican Republic, where he returns each winter with medicine, athletic gear and financial doles for the less fortunate.
The enigma that is George Antonio Bell accepts the reporter's extended hand but turns down the request for a few minutes of questions.
"Sorry, but I don't talk to the press," Bell says politely.
The reporter tries again: "There have been times when you've talked. It would only take a few minutes."
"Sorry," Bell says. "It's my policy."
The reporter leaves with mixed emotions--frustration over his inability to have gained an insight or two and relief that he was not subjected to what Toronto Star columnist Jim Proudfoot recently described as Bell's "gratuitous hostility."
Others have referred to Bell in different ways.
Bill Buckner, then with the Boston Red Sox and now with the Angels, called Bell baseball's "dirtiest player." Detroit pitcher Walt Terrell said Bell was a "hotdog." Angel Manager Gene Mauch has said he is "the most intimidating hitter in the league."
Then there's Toronto utilityman Garth Iorg, who stood near his locker the other day and said: "He's funny. He's supportive--he gives me the feeling that he gets just as much enjoyment out of seeing me make a contribution as if he had done it himself. He's a great guy."
Said Toronto catcher Ernie Whitt: "George may be the best teammate I've ever had. He plays well, he plays hurt, he plays hard. He wants to win, and he wants everyone to do well. I can't think of anything he doesn't do."
Bell plays cribbage with Rick Leach before games, promotes the gallows humor of the clubhouse and is quick to address areas of concern. When a slumping Dave Stieb took to sulking in the clubhouse, Bell said to him: "Hey, you're supposed to be a leader. Act like it."
When shortstop Tony Fernandez was sidelined in a controversial slide last week, Bell cautioned replacement Manny Lee, who hails from San Pedro de Macoris, as do Bell and Fernandez, to avoid saying anything that might disrupt the Jays' title bid. Lee, reportedly unhappy about spending much of the year in the minors, has refused to say anything about anything.
Many Toronto reporters have said, "No mas," washing their hands of Bell, their view shared by Toronto Star columnist John Robertson, who once wrote: "George Bell was from the old school. He flunked civilization."
But if Bell regards silence as golden and has now convinced Lee of it, it might not stem from hostility or dislike for the media as much as his initial problems with the language and an ensuing response to rejection.
Soon to be 28 and completing his fourth full season with the Blue Jays, Bell had never made the American League All-Star team until a midsummer publicity blitz landed him in the starting lineup, and he has yet to be voted his own team's player of the year by the Toronto media.
In fact, Bell rigidly adopted his current policy after the 1984 season when the Toronto writers voted Dave Collins, who had hit .308 and stolen 60 bases in 128 games as a platoon player, the club's player of the year over Bell, who had hit .292 with 26 homers in 159 games.
Bell, reached by a Toronto reporter in the Dominican Republic after the voting was announced, immediately denounced it as a racial issue. He has since said that he meant no disrespect to Collins but that Collins, a white player, got the award because he talked with reporters and Bell didn't.
There was also an incident in the 1985 playoffs against the Kansas City Royals that prompted Bell to further retreat from the media.
He was quoted as saying that the Blue Jays were getting robbed on close plays because the umpires were biased against a Canadian team and Dominican players. Bell responded to the ensuing furor by saying he had made the remarks in jest to teammate Lloyd Moseby and had been overheard by prying reporters.