MADISON, Alabama -- Jay Bell has done a lot of things over the course of his long professional baseball career, including scoring the winning run in Game 7 of the World Series as a member of the 2001 Diamondbacks. This season, however, he's doing something that no one in the
MADISON, Alabama -- Jay Bell has done a lot of things over the course of his long professional baseball career, including scoring the winning run in Game 7 of the World Series as a member of the 2001 Diamondbacks. This season, however, he's doing something that no one in the sport has done before -- piloting the Rocket City Trash Pandas.
The oft-bespectacled middle infielder primarily remembered as a Pirate (1989--96) and a D-back (1997-2002) currently serves as the Trash Pandas' manager. The Double-A affiliate of the Angels is based in Madison, Alabama, and represents the greater Huntsville area. The team's attention-getting name and branding pays homage to the region's long association with cosmic pursuits, as exemplified by the garbage can-do spirit of the astronaut raccoon depicted in the primary logo. Bell, a native of comparatively nearby Pensacola, was named Rocket City manager prior to the 2020 season that wasn't. That gave him plenty of time to get acclimated to the Trash Panda aesthetic.
"I don’t have a problem with it at all," said Bell, speaking prior to a game at Toyota Field earlier this month. "This Huntsville-Madison area is very much into space exploration and rocket stuff, so this is Rocket City. [Mascot] Sprocket the Trash Panda is a play on Guardians of the Galaxy [character Rocket Racoon], so I think it’s kind of a unique thing."
Bell came to the Angels organization -- and by extension, the Trash Pandas -- following three seasons managing in the Yankees organization.
"To have an opportunity to work for that storied franchise was a huge honor and I loved it," he said. "Even though I chose to leave, it’s still three of my most enjoyable years in baseball. I was out of baseball for about two months or so and happened to get a phone call from the Angels. They asked if I would be interested in their Double-A managing job. I said, 'Absolutely.'"
"I had the opportunity to join the organization knowing that this franchise [the Trash Pandas] was going to be in existence," he continued. "Loved the opportunity to come back to the southeast. It felt like being home. I knew we would go down to Pensacola [to play the Blue Wahoos] and spend some time down there. I have family and friends who still live there, so it was just kind of a unique setup for me."
When the D-backs played their first season in 1998, Bell was the starting shortstop. He likens that inaugural campaign to what he is now experiencing with the Trash Pandas, but "just a different take on it." A big part of the job is connecting with the fan base while establishing the template regarding how to represent the team.
"As a manager my job is to take care of my players. But I want to encourage them to do their best to represent the Minor League facility they're at, the Minor League franchise they're at," he said. "You should represent the city that you're playing in well, and part of that is getting involved with the community."
When Bell played at the Double-A level, it was as a member of the 1985-'86 Waterbury (Connecticut) Indians. That team's Municipal Stadium was built in 1930 as a dog racing track and later converted into a baseball facility. Suffice to say, those long-ago environs are a far cry from the Trash Pandas' Toyota Field.
"These guys are getting to experience better fields and better facilities, they make it enjoyable for players," he said. "It's about trying to make the experience as much like the big leagues as you can possibly make it. Because many of these players will never reach that level. So you want to give them something they can look back on fondly and appreciate what they actually went through. Even though they don’t make a ton of money, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat them like big leaguers."
Bell's familiarity with today's Minor League landscape makes it easier for him to relate to the experiences of his two sons, Brantley and Brock. Brantley, an infielder, plays for the Triple-A Louisville Bats. Brock, currently recovering from Tommy John surgery, is a pitcher in the Red Sox system. Bell's message to them, and to his Trash Panda charges, is applicable across all known baseball environments. It's one that transcends time, and fittingly for Rocket City, space.
"One of the things that I learned later on in my career that I try to get across is that the process matters," he said. "Going through your workday, doing your absolute best to improve daily, pays off. It may not pay off on your timetable, but it does pay off. So that’s the message -- it’s just hard for them to live it out sometimes. It’s easy for me to say it, but tougher for them to live it out. But it is truth, and that goes for my boys and for my players as well."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.