Rick Sofield remembers well the challenges associated with playing in the professional ranks for the first time. Thirty-seven seasons ago he was an 18-year-old in the Appalachian League, fresh out of high school in Morristown, N.J. The adjustments, both on the field and off, were a challenge for the young outfielder, who admits he had to grow up fast in order to keep pace.
"You got to go through it at some point if you want to get to the big leagues," said Sofield, who reached the Majors with Minnesota for the first of three seasons in 1979. "That's why these guys are here, to learn how to handle the ups and downs and become better players and better men."
As manager of the West Virginia Power, Sofield realizes one of his prized pupils, outfielder Josh Bell, is experiencing the proverbial emotional roller coaster that has left the 19-year-old from Dallas feeling at times as if his head is spinning. Bell is making his professional debut with the Power after signing late last August and is discovering pro ball is a whole new game.
"I'm in a different part of the country and it's definitely new territory in terms of playing," Bell said. "I'm just trying to get used to the game right now and used to playing every day.
"In high school, if I had a bad game, I'd have four or five days to recover and get better. Now that it's every day, I have to make adjustments on the fly and try to let the game come to me."
Through his first 11 outings, Bell has shown flashes of his brilliant potential, batting at a .255 clip with a home run, three doubles and 10 RBIs. His defense has been solid, not unlike his incredible athleticism in all phases of the game. At the same time, he has experienced some difficulties in terms of being patient and making consistent contact. In Bell's initial 47 at-bats, he had 17 strikeouts and one walk, leading to a modest .260 on-base percentage.
"There's so many things I need to get better on," Bell said. "Some days my legs aren't there, so I have to make adjustments. You have to be careful about what you eat and you need to focus on getting enough sleep at night, which can be challenging at times when we're on the bus. I'm still learning what works for me and what doesn't work."
Considered one of the top high school position players in last year's Draft, Bell slipped to the Pirates in the second round because most teams deemed him unsignable. His mother is a professor at Texas Arlington, and Bell's commitment to becoming a Longhorn at the University of Texas appeared to be ironclad. Pittsburgh, however, presented Bell with a $5 million signing bonus, the largest ever given to a player selected outside the first round. That type of money, along with the chance to become an impact player in a rebuilding organization, was simply too much for Bell to turn down.
"When it comes down to that type of investment, you're going to get more opportunities," Bell said. "I decided that if this is really what I want to be doing for the rest of my life, this is the best shot I'm going to get. If there are struggles, I feel I'll have more chances to prevail in the future if I signed now. That's why I decided to sign out of high school instead of going the college route."
Pittsburgh officials believe Bell has the ability to become an impact player in the Major Leagues in the not-too-distant future. With his intelligence and baseball instincts, he should add power to his offensive package as his 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame matures. He also has the range and arm strength to be an All-Star-caliber right fielder.
For now, he's simply learning the protocol and building a foundation for the long haul.
"I really didn't have any expectations when I signed last year," Bell said. "I'm just trying to let everything come to me and learn as I go. I never planned to go this route, so I'm trying to take everything in and do the best I can."
Tourists have the Power: Bell's West Virginia Power have already seen enough of the Asheville Tourists, who have a 5-0 record in head-to-head match-ups. The Tourists have outscored the Power, 57-23, and plated 10 or more runs in four of the five contests, including a 16-0 victory on April 16.
The dominant Dylan: No pitcher in the Minor Leagues has been more dominant in the first two weeks of the season than Delmarva's Dylan Bundy. The Shorebirds right-hander did not allow a hit in his first three starts, all of which have been limited to three innings. He issued his first walk of the campaign in his third appearance, on April 17 against Hagerstown, and has struck out 15 of the 28 batters he's faced.
No Power in Rome: The Rome Braves rank last in the Sally League in most offensive categories while getting off to a 2-9 start, including a 1-4 mark at home. A more traditional power outage occurred at State Mutual Stadium on April 17, causing the R-Braves' contest with Savannah to be postponed in the top of the fourth inning.