Hot Stove: Heath Bell to Nationals

Alaska is a long way from the Major Leagues. Alaska is a long way from most things, really. But that’s where I was, a 19-year-old kid from Orange County with a dream to play in the pros. I’d be lying to you if I told you my plans were playing out exactly as I’d hoped. I was a pitcher for the Anchorage Bucs, a summer collegiate league team with an average attendance in the hundreds. I slept in a room with two bunk beds in a host family’s suburban home. Did I mention I had to learn to adjust my sleep schedule to a place with 22 hours of daylight?

That’s when I got the biggest phone call of my young life. The person on the other end needed me to be in Tennessee by yesterday. There was a pitching spot open on the Kingsport Mets, a farm team for the New York Mets. I don’t even remember packing. The vivid memory I have is arriving at the airport in the terrible humidity of Memphis and being wildly happy to be wrapped up in a blanket by the heat. I was in such a rush to get there that I hadn’t even brought any shorts or t-shirts. But I didn’t care. I knew it was my best shot at the Majors and I was ready to get to work.

This morning, many years later, I took another flight, this time from LA to DC, and I couldn’t help but think of that young guy flying from Alaska to Tennessee with a suitcase full of North Face gear and a stubborn dream. Today I’m in DC because I’m still chasing that dream. At around noon today, I signed with the Nationals.

I’m a different person today in a lot of ways — for one, I’m a married father of four and I’m 17 years older — but I’m as hungry now as ever. I’m excited to join the Nationals for the same reason I was excited to get to Tennessee back then. I flat out love to pitch.

Since Little League, I’ve probably had a hundred coaches — and a whole lot of great ones — but you might be surprised that some of the best advice I ever got about pitching came from my dad. He’d played baseball in the Marines but never beyond that — he certainly wasn’t an expert on pitching mechanics or arm care. But my dad knew about the mental mountain that you had to climb to survive as a pitcher. He knew that pitching was a head game, not an arm game. One of the smartest things he ever did was not allow me to throw a curveball until I got to high school. At the time, I protested his rule. I complained, like a kid does when he’s grounded and all the others kids are out at a party. All the other kids got to throw curveballs, and sliders, and breaking balls. I was missing out on the fun.

But in retrospect, my dad was on to something that even expert pitching coaches might appreciate. He knew that good pitching started with control. “First, throw strikes,” my dad would say. It sounded simple, even cliché. But my dad, a mechanic who worked all his life and never graduated college, wasn’t the type of guy who tossed around clichés. He knew that if you could throw a fastball anywhere you wanted in the strike zone, you’d be deadly. Sure, the curveball is enticing. It’s sexy. You get the batter to chase pitches and it feels great to see them swing and miss, especially younger batters who haven’t figured out how to hit the curve yet. You can make them look foolish. But I’ve seen guys with jaw-dropping curveballs dig themselves into huge holes when they couldn’t throw strikes when the game was on the line.

I’d be the first to tell you that my career has been a roundabout one. It’s definitely been all over the place. First, I left high school, with a lot of buzz from scouts, but was never drafted. I knew the statistics: less than 1 percent of players in Major League Baseball are undrafted free agents. Next, I was never able to throw a monster fastball (I threw 86-88 mph then, when guys hoping to play in the Majors were averaging in the mid-90s). Sometimes things felt stacked against me. I spent seven years — seven! — in minor league ball before I ever stood on a mound in a Major League stadium. It was seven years filled with a lot of doubt. Seven years filled with a lot of PB&J sandwiches on the team bus and a lot of lonely phone calls with my wife from a motel where the team was staying.

Even when I finally made the Majors, success and setback seemed to be siblings. But resilience is what a relief pitcher must have. I wouldn’t want to do anything else: you live and die by your last outing, by your last at-bat, by your last pitch. It’s what it means to be a closer. There’s nothing like it. Sure, you’re going to have hot streaks and cold streaks. But what I’ve learned from years of pitching on the biggest and not-so-biggest stages is that maybe more than any other position, the reliever’s challenge is mental. The reliever’s challenge is to come in the game when it really matters, when all the chips are down, when the game seems to slow way down. Sometimes you only need to get three outs. Three little outs – that’s going to be the title of my autobiography if I ever write one. You might only have to throw eight pitches. But those eight pitches take on the weight of the world.

That’s just as true on the Anchorage Bucs as it is on the Washington Nationals. “First, throw strikes,” I can hear my dad saying. Back in my Minor League days, I would call him on the phone after almost every game. We’d recap the day’s game in minute detail. I would seek his advice on pitching strategy. How did I pitch, dad? We’d dive deep into the details of the pitch count and the personalities of each batter. Sometimes it got so boring for my mom, listening to his end of the conversation from across the room, that she’d doze off to sleep.

I can’t wait to play for the Nationals. By writing this, I guess everyone will know that I like to throw a first-pitch fastball for a strike. Some secret now. But see if you can hit it.