Pirates Slugger Josh Bell Shares Home Run Derby Spotlight with Jon Schwind

Friendship between Bell and Schwind began at Pirate City in 2011

Tribe assistant hitting coach Jon Schwind, best friends with Josh Bell since 2011, threw to Bell in the MLB Home Run Derby on Monday night. (Photo by Austin Friedline)

By Mike Lopresti / Indianapolis Indians | July 9, 2019 9:53 AM

CLEVELAND, OHIO - World, meet Josh Bell. In case anyone still hasn't noticed yet.

Yeah, he's been good, and productive, and eminently affable. Just like he was as an Indianapolis Indian in 2015 and '16, when he was just about the king of Victory Field. But how many knew he could be this good, with power numbers that make the stat sheet smoke? The Pittsburgh Pirates are not often front and center in the national baseball conversation, which has made this July - and the All-Star festivities in Cleveland -- rather like Bell's coming-out party. So let's go to his shindig.

MONDAY, JULY 1: What's a fine way to celebrate being named to your first All-Star Game? Homer three times against the Chicago Cubs. The last Pirate to hit three home runs in a game from the left side was Willie Stargell. That was 1971.

Bell is happy to leave June behind, when he hit only .208, with four homers. He nearly matches that total in one game. "Hopefully, that turns the corner for me a little bit," he says.

TUESDAY, JULY 2: The latest Bell number of note: He has 57 extra-base hits in 83 games. Nobody in the National League has done that since Hank Aaron in 1959. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette mentions how Bell merchandise has become a big seller at local stores, under the headline: Josh Bell perfect fit as Pirates' new `face of the franchise.'

WEDNESDAY, JULY 3: A 26th home run and double run Bell's extra-base hits total to 59, the most ever by a National Leaguer before the All-Star break. There's a reason he was the leading All-Star vote-getter at first base by the players.

THURSDAY, JULY 4: The Indianapolis Indians return home to play in sold-out Victory Field. In his usual third base coaching box is Jon Schwind, who has big weekend plans. He's heading for Cleveland. Bell has asked Schwind to pitch to him in the Home Run Derby. The two played together in the Pirates organization and became close friends.

FRIDAY, JULY 5: Milwaukee's Christian Yelich puts on a long-ball display before the Brewers' game in Pittsburgh. He hits one far enough to break the window of a boat parked on the Allegheny River, beyond the right field wall of PNC Park. Bell has sent a couple into the river himself during games this season. His breakthrough season has come with splashes.

Yelich's power show is impressive, but so is Bell's three-run homer that helps Pittsburgh wipe out a 6-1 deficit in the ninth inning. The Pirates lose 7-6 in the 10th.

SATURDAY, JULY 6: Jon and Lindsay Schwind have stopped at an Ohio McDonald's on Interstate 70. They're on their way to Pittsburgh to meet up with Bell Sunday, before heading off the Cleveland. Back in Indianapolis, Schwind has been a hot interview item in recent days, once news got out that he would be pitching to Bell Monday night.

"I have had a bunch, but it's all for him, which is pretty neat," he says. "I'm sure he's had about double."

Excited to be a part of this?

"I'm excited for him because it's something he's worked really hard for, something that has been kind of a dream of his, something we've talked and joked about throughout our path on the minor leagues. I'm just excited to help him in whatever way that he needs me. That's my goal, to make the day a little bit easier for him.

"I'm not really nervous. I think it's more because the focus isn't really on myself."

Schwind's family had no cable television so he didn't see a lot of broadcast baseball games growing up, but he did watch a lot of Home Run Derbys. And he's been in the ballpark at Cleveland before, on family trips to see the Indians. He still remembers a Mark McGwire homer, and Jim Thome's walk-off shot.

He and Bell came to the Pirates organization in the same 2011 draft but were separated by half a continent in location - Bell is from Texas, Schwind from New York - and by light years in expectation. Bell went in the second round as the 61st overall pick, Schwind in the 41st round as No. 1232. But their journeys quickly intersected, especially when they were injured at the same time, Bell with a knee and Schwind with a broken arm. They rehabbed together in Florida, and after their rehab duties were done each day, what else was there to do? "We went out to dinner, we'd go see movies, play video games, sometimes just talk about our faith," Schwind says. "We'd go to church on Sundays together. I got to meet his family, he got to me meet my family."

The friendship deepened as they traveled the road in the Pirates minor league system - through places such as West Virginia and Bradenton and Altoona, rooming together at home and on the road. But soon, their professional paths parted. Bell, the phenom, took the fast lane to PNC Park. Schwind, the injury-plagued outfielder, went through the last days of his playing career, and then got into coaching.

But the bond only tightened. They talk to each other through good times and bad, visit each one another during the off-season. Bell did a reading in Schwind's wedding. "It's a brotherhood. I have three older brothers, and this seems very, very similar to that, and I think he would probably say the same thing," Schwind says.

When Bell knew he'd need a pitcher for the Home Run Derby, there was only one person for the job - the friend who expected great things from him all along.

"What he's doing is amazing, but honestly I'm not surprised," Schwind says. "It's all things I knew he was capable of."

SUNDAY, JULY 7: Bell hits the All-Star break with 84 RBI, 13 more than anyone else in major league baseball. He has 27 home runs. He had 12 all last season. And something else: After beating Milwaukee 6-5 - led by the three-run homer of another recent Indianapolis passerby, Bryan Reynolds - the Pirates are only 2 ½ games out of first place. If they contend in the second half, let the Bell-for-MVP chants begin.

MONDAY, JULY 8: The betting favorite for the Home Run Derby is wearing a new light blue sport coat for the All-Star media press session. He kind of stands out, since most of his National League teammates are on the casual side.

"I didn't know that guys were dressing down today," Bell says. "But today and tomorrow I'm trying to represent my dad pretty well. I feel like he'd be proud of this attire."

He had been up early in the morning, had breakfast with his parents, then went back to sleep, resting for the evening's exertions. "Basically saving my bullets for tonight," he says.

But there were a few minutes to hear Bell on Bell.

His appreciation for this moment, given there were some tough early days in his big league career: "There were a lot of ups and downs. A bit of a roller coaster ride the first couple of years, a lot of soul searching," he says. "The league kicked my tail there for a while.

"I talked to (Tampa Bay All-Star and former Pirate) Charlie Morton this morning. I told him I keep pinching myself thinking I was going to wake up and be back in 2012 in Pirate City, rehabbing my knee after surgery."

The conversation during the ride from Pittsburgh to Cleveland Sunday night with Schwind: "You think back about the road trips in West Virginia. It'd be 12 hours and we'd sleep on the bottom of the bus. The engine's right there, so it's scorching hot, and you had bundled up T-shirts just to keep your face from burning. Now we're taking a chartered ride up to Cleveland together for the All-Star Game. It's a dream. I had no idea then it would all pay off."

The idea that the winner of the Home Run Derby now wins $1 million: "It's crazy to think about, that 12 minutes could make you a millionaire."

Bell discusses the reasons for his offensive explosion of 2019. The hours upon hours spent in the offseason working with hitting guru Joe DeMarco in California. Pirate hitting coaches Rick Eckstein and Jacob Cruz helping develop game plans for every pitcher, and an attack strategy for every at-bat. Some tinkering in technique and approach, some maturation in the big leagues, and suddenly, there is so often thunder with Bell at the plate, and lightning, too.

"I think it's just a perfect storm. A lot of things working for me," he says. "It's more fuel to the fire, knowing what I'm doing is working and hard work pays off."

The memories of baseball as a kid, which an All-Star berth naturally rekindles: "Just me and my dad, we had a pitching machine for Wiffle Balls. We did home run derby all the time. I had Wiffle Balls going into my neighbor's yard. I'm excited for my dad to be here. I know he's pumped. The only thing he wants me to make sure I don't do is take too many swings before the derby. He tells the story a thousand times that I took way too many swings before my derby in high school and ended up getting beat out in the final round because I was dog tired."

And finally, he thinks back on his time as an Indianapolis Indian: The tough start he had in Triple-A - "something like 3-for-40" - and then some sessions with Indians hitting coach Butch Wynegar, and a revived bat that helped lead the Indians to the playoffs in 2015. Bell had a walk-off hit in the postseason. He was back to have a big year at the plate in 2016, until the Pirates called.

"It was a joy to go to the ballpark every day," he says of his Indians days. "It felt like a big league city, for sure."

Seven hours later, Bell is knocked out in the first round of the Home Run Derby. His 18 homers are a perfectly respectable number, but Ronald Acuna Jr. puts up 25. The streak continues of no Pirate ever advancing past the first round, and this is a franchise that once had Barry Bonds. And Bell had said earlier if he won, a lot of his money would go to a new home for his folks.

Oh, well. The All-Star Game is Tuesday and Bell will be a starter, batting sixth as the designated hitter. If he keeps his current extra-base hit pace, he'll finish with the third most in history, behind two guys named Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. This is where the road has led, that once curved through Victory Field.

"I think they're two different animals," Bell says of the derby and the game. "I'm excited for this entire experience. One second at a time, trying to take it all in."

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

View More