KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Barring unforeseen complications, or perhaps a continuation of what's happened the last two nights, Juan Bell's trial as the Orioles' second baseman will continue indefinitely.
With Bill Ripken on the disabled list, Bell will be given every opportunity to support the organization's contention that he has the ability to play every day in the big leagues. The fact Bell has made costly errors that were pivotal in two straight gut-wrenching losses will have no bearing on his immediate status.
Manager John Oates reiterated that early this morning, after a nightmarish 9-8 loss in 15 innings to the Kansas City Royals. It was a throwing error by Bell that allowed the tying run to score and sent the game into extra innings.
"I'm going to play him," said Oates. "It's not like he's out there all by himself. He's going to play.
"We're going to find out if he can play second base and the only way we're going to find out is to play him," said Oates. "Not every other day, not once in a while . . . every day."
Oates is on record as believing that the big leagues is not the place to learn a new position, as Bell is trying to do. But, with Ripken out, the manager is committed to giving the 23-year-old infielder every chance to prove or disprove the organization's judgment.
"I can't find anything out with him sitting on the bench," said Oates. "And I can't find anything out by a scout telling me he can do this or he can do that. He can't help us on the bench. He's PTC got an opportunity to play now, and I'm going to play him."
The consensus on Bell's talent is far from unanimous, and there are a lot of people who will be watching with more than passing interest. One of them will be Oates, who is still on trial himself.
"It was an organizational decision that he be on the team [at the start of the season]," said Oates, who denies any pressure from the front office. "The majority of the people in our organization think Juan Bell is a bona fide prospect. But we don't know any more about him now than we did Opening Day. We're going to play him enough to make a true evaluation."
At the same time, Oates realizes he has to be concerned about the overall well-being of his team. But he says he's not concerned about any effect it might have on his situation.
"I'm not worried about that," said Oates. "This is part of my job. I have to try and develop this team to make it a better club at the end of the year than when I took over."
Bell's error last night was a bizarre one that followed an infield hit by Todd Benzinger with two outs and the Orioles protecting an 8-7 lead in the ninth inning. After fielding Benzinger's bouncer up the middle, Bell wisely refrained from throwing to first, where he had no play.
Instead he looked at third base, where pinch-runner Gary Thurman had rounded the bag. Bell started to throw, changed his mind and the ball squirted out of his hand and bounced into the Orioles' dugout.
Then in the 15th inning, with George Brett running on a fly ball to rightfield, Bell cut off a throw to first base from Joe Orsulak. Although there didn't appear to be a play on Brett, first baseman Randy Milligan made a quick reaction and later indicated the runner would have been out had the throw been allowed to continue.
Two singles later and the Royals won a game in which they had no business even being in contention.
Ben McDonald had been staked to a 7-0 lead after 3 1/2 innings, the kind of advantage that is supposed to go right to the victory bank. But McDonald, billed as No. 1 on a staff that has been devoid of a leader, has yet to put together strong back-to-back performances and he failed to survive the fourth inning.
"He was pitching like he had a one-run lead," said Oates. "I don't know whether it was because he was just trying to throw strikes or what, but he hardly used his curveball early. I don't think he threw one for a strike until the third inning."
This was a game in which the Orioles had three players get three hits (as did the Royals) and three others hit safely twice. It also featured an all-time record-tying six straight strikeouts by designated hitter Sam Horn, who came within inches of a home run in the 15th and barely made it to second base because of a premature celebratory trot.
"It was one of the weirdest games I ever saw," said Oates.
And in the end, the conversation invariably came back to Bell. His error on a sacrifice bunt the night before led to a 2-1 loss to California.
Oates, who brought Bell into his office for a few minutes long after the game, undoubtedly to reassure the second baseman, did his best to deflect criticism away from the infielder, but
admitted he was dealing with a delicate subject.
Bell's actions appear to be those of a player severely lacking in confidence, and perhaps acceptance by his own teammates.
"Different players have different emotional levels," said Oates. "We try to pep him up as much as we can. We want him to be the best player he can be. That's our job. We get excited when he does some of the things he's done the last few days."
The highs, however, have not come close to matching the lows. The situation last night was compounded by the fact that Bell, who had a single in the 15th inning, struck out four times himself and failed to execute in a sacrifice bunt situation.
The circumstances can hardly be called ideal, and the beginning has hardly been encouraging, but for better or worse Bell is getting the opportunity to display his talents on a daily basis. He won't be judged solely on the last two nights or the next two weeks.
But between now and the end of the season Juan Bell's report card will no longer be a complete blank. He'll get some grades and they no doubt will influence his future with the Orioles.