When Bell signed a five-year $34 million deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks before the club’s inaugural 1998 season, many in baseball considered the contract Exhibit A for the imminent salary insanity threatened by well-heeled owner Jerry Colangelo. The bespectacled Bell was an unlikely choice to become baseball’s highest-paid middle infielder — Colangelo valued him as much for his reputation as a solid citizen, devout Christian and quiet team leader as he did for his bat and glove. But Bell responded with a career season a year later, belting 38 homers while racking up 112 RBIs and 132 runs scored in 1999.
Originally a first-round pick of the Twins in 1984, Bell made 129 errors over his first three minor-league seasons. In 1985, he was traded to the Indians in a deal that brought starter Bert Blyleven to Minnesota, and when he finally reached the majors in September 1986 he faced Blyleven in his first major-league at-bat. Bell promptly ripped the first pitch he saw for a home run.
His penchant for ironic revenge wouldn’t win him a regular spot in the lineup, however. Not until he was traded to Pittsburgh in March 1989 for Felix Fermin would he get a chance to prove himself an everyday player. Bell took over as the Bucs’ fulltime shortstop in 1990 and held the position the next seven years, a tenure that spanned Pittsburgh’s three straight NL East titles from 1990 through 1992.
Though mostly a singles and doubles hitter at first, Bell did show early signs of his power potential, cracking 16 home runs in 1991. He also improved enough on defense to win a Gold Glove in 1993, a season which saw him score 102 runs while setting career highs with a .310 batting average and 16 steals.
A victim of the Pirates’ salary purge in the late 1990s, Bell was traded to Kansas City in December 1996 and enjoyed his best season at the plate, batting .292 with 21 home runs and 91 RBIs. His well-timed breakthrough with his bat made him one of the most coveted free agents in the offseason, and prompted Colangelo to ante up a huge contract to lure him to Arizona. Bell was also swayed by a desire to play for D-Backs’ manager Buck Showalter, whom he had known since his high school days in Florida.
After a so-so first year (.251 average, 20 homers) for the expansion club, Bell surpassed all expectations as the Diamondbacks won the NL West title in 1999. A trial switch to second base at the tail end of the 1998 season became a permanent move the next spring. Bell slammed 36 of his 38 circuit blasts from his new position, a total exceeded only by Rogers Hornsby, Davey Johnson and Ryne Sandberg among second baseman. One of those round-trippers — a sixth-inning grand slam off Oakland hurler Jimmy Haynes on the final game before the All-Star break — won $1 million for an Arizona fan who had correctly predicted the batter and the inning for a bases-loaded blast.
In his third season with the Diamondbacks, Bell’s offensive production fell more in line with his career norms as he hit .267 with 18 home runs and 68 RBIs.