By Morgan Campbell
After nearly two decades as a sports writer, I’m immune to superstardom, and no matter how famous the athlete, I make a point of never acting star-struck. But then I bumped into a Blue Jays legend while crossing Bay Street in downtown Toronto. And before I could stop myself, I was acting like the fanboy that I promised never to become.
I asked in Spanish if we could take a selfie, and he asked me why I wanted one.
As a fourth-grader, I watched him catch the final out of the game that clinched the Jays’ first-ever American League East title in 1985.
And as a sixth-grader, I stood shivering outside Comiskey Park on a frigid Monday night, hoping that he’d sign a baseball for me before boarding the team bus.
And he did it.
So, for me, the answer was self-evident.
¡Porque tú eres GEORGE BELL, man!
Though Bell wasn’t seeking attention that day, it quickly became clear that he didn’t mind being recognized. I just didn’t understand why such a key figure in local baseball history, a powerful free swinger who’d rather make contact than work the count, figured that he could walk the Toronto streets incognito.
Thirty years ago, Bell hit 47 home runs and led the American League with 134 RBI, capping his finest individual season by becoming the first Dominican to earn MVP honors.
Three decades later, as Major League Baseball prepares to announce the 2017 AL MVP, a race that comes down to Aaron Judge, Venezuela’s José Altuve and the Dominican Republic’s José Ramírez, the game’s business and demographics have changed drastically, and the significance of Bell’s feat becomes even clearer.
First, Bell’s MVP signaled Toronto’s arrival as a major baseball market after 11 seasons in the league. Whatever bias voters might have harbored toward teams based in the United States, Bell overwhelmed them with his season-long dominance.
More importantly, Bell’s win came at a critical juncture in MLB’s relationship with the nation. He wasn’t just a standout player, but an Afro-Latino star who shone brightest just when baseball’s cultural composition was beginning to shift.
“It’s a proud moment for the whole country,” Andrés Van der Horst Álvarez, then the Dominican Republic’s Secretary of Sport, said in a 1987 interview with the daily newspaper El Nacional. “We’ve always been proud of (Bell) because he has always made it very clear where he’s from. He’s an ambassador for all of us.”
From San Pedro to MVP
Bell was born in San Pedro de Macorís, arguably the cradle of Dominican baseball and certainly the birthplace of great infielders and hitters, from Rico Carty, Sammy Sosa, Pedro Guerrero and Tony Fernández to Robinson Canó and Miguel Sanó. Of the 707 MLB players born in the country, 97 hail from San Pedro de Macorís. And unless they become pitchers like Joaquín Andújar or Johnny Cueto, they are born swinging.
Signed at age 18 by the Philadelphia Phillies as an amateur free agent in 1978, Bell was sent to rookie ball in Helena, Mont., and hit .311 in 33 games. The following year in Class-A Spartanburg (S.C.), he batted .305 with 15 triples, 22 homers and 102 RBI over 130 games.
Somewhat surprisingly, he began the 1980 season in Double-A Reading, Pa. If the parent club in Philadelphia still wasn’t sure that Bell could mash major league pitching, Epifanio “Epy” Guerrero certainly had no doubts.
Guerrero was the legendary scout who helped the Toronto Blue Jays tap into the rich veins of talent flowing from the Dominican Republic. He first saw Bell as a teenager and kept track of his development throughout the Phillies’ system, finally convincing the Jays to use the Rule 5 Draft to pluck the outfielder that same 1980 season.
As mandated by the draft, the Blue Jays kept Bell on the major league roster. But his career in the Big Show started slowly. He played only 60 games in 1981, hitting .233 with five home runs and 12 RBI. It took two more years of seasoning and shuttling between Triple-A Syracuse (N.Y.) and Toronto before Bell acquired the necessary confidence and maturity.
Anointed a starting outfielder in 1984, Bell steadily improved. He hit 26 home runs with 87 RBI that year, followed by 28 and 95 in 1985, when he helped propel Toronto to its first AL East championship.
In 1986, he averaged .309 with 31 home runs and 108 RBI, earning the second of three straight Silver Slugger Awards while finishing fourth in the MVP voting.
Then, in 1987, he produced the best season of his 12-year major league career. Besides batting .308 and leading the league with 369 total bases, his 47 homers trailed only two players in the majors — the Cubs’ Andre Dawson and the Athletics’ Mark McGwire, who each hit 49.
All those stats added up to the MVP award for a player the Phillies had left unprotected seven seasons earlier.
Bilingual and bicultural
While Bell was far from the first Dominican player to make an in impact in the majors, he formed part of a stellar generation that helped sculpt today’s landscape, in which #MangúPower is now the norm.
You can’t have a season without Dominican players sharing the limelight — whether it’s Canó being voted the All-Star Game MVP, his Mariners teammate Nelson Cruz leading the AL with 119 RBI at age 37 or Ramírez hitting .318 to lead the majors with 56 doubles and finish as one of the AL MVP finalists.
According to Baseball Almanac, 41 Dominicans played in MLB games in 1987. This year, 152. And that’s not counting proud Dominican-Americans, like the Yankees’ Dellin Betances.
Back then, the big leagues were less Latino and more African-American than they were today, with black players from the United States composing 17.7 percent of opening day rosters in 1987, down from a peak of 18.7 percent in 1981, according to SABR. By 2016, that proportion had slid below seven percent.
In the Blue Jays’ clubhouse, the bilingual Bell moved easily between cultural groups, and on the field, he joined with two other African-American stars — Lloyd Moseby and Jesse Barfield — to form what many observers considered baseball’s best outfield.
The trio appeared that preseason on the cover of The Sporting News’ 1987 Baseball Yearbook along with the label “Blue Jay Bashers,” but the compliment didn’t capture the group’s uniqueness.
Center fielder Moseby gave the Jays speed. His 255 stolen bases remain a franchise record.
Right fielder Jesse Barfield possessed a power bat — leading the league with 40 homers in 1986 — and a power arm. He won Gold Gloves in 1986 and 1987, tallying 37 outfield assists over that span.
Bell, who stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 190 pounds, was simply the team’s best all-around hitter, and in 1987 established a series of club records that lasted more than a decade. No one topped his .605 slugging percentage until Carlos Delgado smashed .664 in 2000. And his home run record endured until fellow Dominican José Bautista blasted 54 in 2010.
Embracing Bell and Toronto
But even after posting elite offensive numbers, Bell’s MVP candidacy remained in doubt when voting began, his chances threatened by the Jays’ epic collapse.
Entering the season’s final seven games, the Jays had a 96-59 record and appeared set to secure their second AL East title.
Then they started losing.
After dropping the final game of a home series to division rival Detroit, they were swept by the visiting Milwaukee Brewers, setting up three final games at Tiger Stadium with the division title at stake.
Toronto lost them all, squandering a playoff berth on the season’s final day. And after battering AL pitching all season, Bell disappeared during that critical stretch, going just 3-for-27 with one RBI over his final seven games.
If MVP voters needed reasons to ignore Bell, the late-season slump provided one. His powerhouse team was overtaken by a squad from a more established baseball market, led by shortstop Alan Trammell, who finished second in the MVP balloting.
Instead, they opted to honor the totality of Bell’s work. Toronto might have stalled at 96 wins, but it’s doubtful they’d have even reached that plateau without Bell’s monster season. In electing Bell, the media gave a nod to Toronto, acknowledging its growth as a serious baseball town.
And in becoming the first Dominican player voted MVP — 31 years after Oswaldo “Ozzie” Virgil Sr. became the country’s first major leaguer — Bell hinted at an awareness that the sport was set to turn a demographic corner.
“(The voters) made a pretty good pick,” he told the Toronto Star in 1987. “And I think I may have broken some barrier.”
Morgan Campbell covers the intersection of race, business and sport at the Toronto Star.
Featured Image: Otto Greule Jr. / Getty Images Sport