After class, Birds should ring final Bell

Ken Rosenthal

July 22, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

This better be it. The Orioles claim they haven't seen enough of Juan Bell, but now he's starting at second base for the injured Bill Ripken. Either he's a major-league player or he isn't. No more excuses. No more delays.

Bell, 23, is hearing boos at Memorial Stadium, not just for his inept play, but for what he represents -- the last crumb from the half-baked Eddie Murray trade, and the confused state of the front office nearly three years later.

The Orioles have carried Bell all season, handcuffing two managers in the process. They claim other teams covet Bell, yet they can't trade him. They claim he's a unique talent, yet his gifts are rarely evident on the field.

Bell is batting .140, with more errors (six) than walks (two). This would be a no-brainer, except that the switch-hitting rookie is out of minor-league options. He could be claimed on waivers for $25,000 if the Orioles tried to demote him.

At least two clubs -- Seattle and Philadelphia -- are known to have interest in claiming Bell. A trade would be the logical solution, but the Orioles' asking price is clearly too high. They've only been trying to deal Bell since last winter.

"Let's put it this way," one American League general manager said over the weekend. "That's all they've got left from the Eddie Murray trade, and they still want to get rid of him. What does that tell you about the guy?"

Probably enough, but respected baseball people in the Orioles' front office -- scouting types, and not just the usual suspects -- remain enchanted by Bell's tools. They love his arm, his agility, his speed. They even think he can hit.

Hence, the impasse. Bell is a shortstop, but that position is, uh, taken. So, he's trying to learn a new position at the major-league level -- a difficult task for any player, much less a young Dominican who does not yet speak fluent English.

The results have been predictable. Bell made critical errors in back-to-back losses last week. He looks confused and overmatched at the plate. His teammates privately question whether he belongs on the team.

"I feel comfortable," Bell insisted after going 0-for-3 in yesterday's 6-4 loss to Seattle. "I don't care if people boo me. I've just got to do the best I can. For now, everything's going wrong."

In one respect Bell is the victim of a system supposedly designed to encourage freedom of movement for players with limited experience. He certainly merits sympathy, given all the obstacles he's facing, but he isn't above reproach in this mess.

Last week in Kansas City he twice glared at opposing pitchers for throwing him inside on 0-2 counts, a senseless act that disgusted his teammates. More than once his fellow infielders requested better on-field communication, but he refused to comply.

All young players face a period of adjustment, as Leo Gomez and Chris Hoiles can attest. Bell is under perhaps even more strain, but where do you draw the line? He muffs routine chances. He swings at overhead planes. Sometimes it looks like he flat doesn't know how to play.

Yet, he made the Opening Day roster over veteran utility man Jeff McKnight. He remained through each and every roster move -- think Dave Johnson would want his spot? -- and now, with Ripken out, he's playing every day.

It's the right decision, for as manager John Oates said, "If he doesn't play, we won't know any more about him next April than we did this April, and we'd have to go through this all over again." Indeed, Bell has batted only 86 times -- hardly enough to render a sound judgment.

Fine, continue the charade. By the time Ripken comes off the 15-day disabled list, the Orioles should have a decent reading on Bell. Hitting coach Tom McCraw said he can play in the majors. But even Oates conceded, "The jury's still out."

The verdict surely would have been reached sooner if Bell wasn't acquired in a major trade, but the Orioles would rather live with mistakes than admit them. Besides, every time they get rid of a player, he turns into Cy Young (Pete Harnisch) or Babe Ruth (Mickey Tettleton).

They sent Murray to Los Angeles for Bell, Ken Howell and Brian Holton. Howell was traded for Phil Bradley, who was traded for Ron Kittle, who was granted free agency. Holton also was granted free agency, and both he and Kittle were in the minor leagues until Kittle joined the Chicago White Sox Saturday.

The trade, club officials will admit in a private moment, was addition by subtraction. They argue -- not without reason -- that the near-miracle of 1989 would never have been possible with Murray playing his traditional role of Frown Prince.

Three years later, that doesn't explain their handling of Bell. If the Orioles were so interested in keeping him long-term, they would have made him a second baseman last year at Rochester. Instead, they kept him at short, so that his market value would remain high.

The way it stands, teams will give up $25,000 for him, but they won't give up any players. The Orioles should have taken the hint long before conducting this final charade. For Bell's sake, for the team's sake, this better be it.

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