FORT MYERS, Fla. – The Perfect Game Super25 series is wrapping up this week in Fort Myers, Florida, as the 14u, 15u and 16u national champions will be decided. Teams have competed all summer long in qualifiers and regional tournaments for the chance to compete in the national championship. One team in particular, the 5 Tool Athletics (Carlsbad, CA), have played together for a long time, but have a new—albeit very well known—head coach in former major league All Star Heath Bell.
Bell is returning to Florida—where he played for the Tampa Bay Rays and Miami Marlins in 2014 and 2012, respectively—in order to lead the Athletics in their quest for a title. Bell’s story is one of hard work and perseverance, as he went from an undrafted free agent in 1998 to a three-time All Star with the San Diego Padres.
Bell isn’t the normal coach for the 5 Tool Athletics, taking on the responsibility this week under unusual circumstances. “What happened is, I’ve known these kids for the past three or four years, two of them are the kids of two of my surfing buddies back home,” Bell explained. “In California, there’s a rule where high school coaches can’t coach for two weeks, and this is one of them. Those coaches work at La Costa Canyon High, and I train there in the offseason, play catch with those guys and I’ve known them for a long time. They just came out, kind of like a joke, ‘why don’t you manage the kids out there?’ and I said ‘yeah cool, sure,’ but they explained, ‘no seriously, we need a coach.’ So, after talking to my family, I came out here.”
Bell has been handed the reigns of a very talented team. As a former pitcher, he really likes the stable of arms at his disposal. “Our pitchers are really good, we throw strikes, everybody has a really good arm, and everybody has different pitching styles, so we can give different looks every time we change pitchers.”
5 Tool also has a deep lineup full of promising young bats. “The whole team can hit, which was a nice surprise. When our kids get a hold of a ball, the ball can go somewhere. Our kids aren’t necessarily mashers or make you think ‘oh, this guy is an unbelievable hitter,’ but they’re all advanced hitters. They understand to go the other way when they need to, they can pull it when they need to or get it on the ground when they need to. It’s really impressed me how good they are as hitters, they’re smart at the plate. It’ not like we’re going to strike out a whole lot, and when they do strike out, they don’t get down on themselves.”
The former big leaguer is very active and talkative while on the sidelines, clearly comfortable with all the kids on the team. He also takes notes throughout the game in a small book. “It’s my little black book, even my wife can’t see it,” Bell said jokingly. He explained that, “it’s just little notes about players, how I can help them out. If I see a way I can help someone out, I just write it down.”
Bell can help the Athletics with his baseball knowledge obtained from his big league experience, but he can also help them with his big league connections. Prior to this tournament, Bell took the team to a Tampa Bay Rays game. Bell last played in the majors for the Rays, and as a result the team was able to talk to a bunch of current Rays, and they also received an inspirational speech from Joe Maddon. Also, they were able to hold a couple practices at the Rays Single-A affiliate’s facility in Port Charlotte.
The Athletics kicked off their week at the 16u Super25 National Championship with two games on Wednesday. In their first game of the day, they lost a tough battle to the East Cobb New England Expos on a walk-off double in the bottom of the last inning. The Athletics fought the entire game, continuously clawing back against a tough Expos team. After falling behind 3-2, they tied the game 3-3, and did the same after falling behind 4-3. They had the bases loaded and one out in the top of the seventh, but they hit a smoking line drive right at the second baseman, failing to score because of poor luck.
Bell spoke to his team after the game and took responsibility for the loss. The Athletics fell out of rallies twice due to unfortunate double plays. “I told them they played really good baseball, they should’ve won that game and I screwed up as the manager. They were listening to me, I told them to run when maybe they were going to hesitate, but like I’ve been telling them the past couple of days, we’re going to play aggressive, we’re going to go right after teams, and we won’t back down from anybody. I told them to keep their heads high, we have three more games to go. I’ll take that loss, you guys go show me that I’m a better manager, and you guys go win while I don’t have to do anything.”
Bell still stands by his belief he wants the Athletics to play aggressively, however. On the Expos game-winning double, center fielder Griffin Teisher sprawled out completely in the right-center gap in an attempt to make a diving catch to save the game. “I think Griff did a great job on the last play. I like them diving, I want the kids to play aggressively, I want them to go balls out, I don’t want them to be passive or play it safe. The kids did great, they just play hard, play hard, play hard, and it just didn’t come out our way.”
The Athletics also fell in their second game of the day to the talented Ohio Surge, but they continued to fight and not back down from their competition.
Bell has a number of specific baseball lessons he can impart to his players, but for someone who had a long and trying road before he achieved stardom, his biggest piece of advice is simple: “We win as a team, we lose as a team, and we have fun.” The Super25 series was created so that teams that play well together can succeed, and Bell and the 5 Tool Athletics epitomize this notion.