It’s the bottom of the third inning, time for Heath Bell to end the shenanigans.
Bell, a pitcher for the Kansas Stars, has spent the first 2 1/2 innings of Friday’s game against Derby in the second row of section 120 at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. He shares his bag of peanuts and becomes familiar enough with the couple in adjacent seats to ask them about future wedding plans.
“Do you think it might be, or are you just testing the waters?” Bell asks an increasingly uncomfortablle Brett Vuxta and Molly Buchholz, who have been dating for five months.
Bell, a 40-year-old former San Diego Padres All-Star, might pitch later in the game, so it’s time to get serious. He has spent much of the Stars’ games this summer in the crowd, selling raffle tickets for non-profit groups, leading cheers and signing autographs.
“It’s a little bit more serious, so maybe the first two or three innings I’ll mess around,” Bell said.
Bell doesn’t exactly follow through on those plans. He finally begins to warm up in the sixth inning of the Stars’ 11-3 quarterfinal win. In the interim, he chats with Cheney Diamond Dawgs, who are awaiting their game, and assists a woman who was hit by a foul ball.
In two years with the Stars, Bell, who played in the 1997 NBC World Series with the El Dorado Broncos, has become a fan favorite whose favorite is the fans. He’s the most visible player among 30 former major-leaguers, and not just because of his brown and mustard yellow throwback Padres jersey.
“When I was playing, I wanted to be a player that, if I was a fan, I would like,” Bell said. “When I was a kid I remember going to a Padre game. I got a ball signed before a game during batting practice and I went up to my dad and he said, ‘Who signed it?’ I don’t know … that guy. I just loved baseball and I was probably playing with (the ball) in the street later that day or the next day.”
Bell covers plenty of topics in less than an hour in section 116. Nothing seems off limits, from his bathroom habits – not as R-rated as it sounds – to his family and his views on social media and what it means to be an American.
“There’s better opportunity here,” Bell said. “I just want people to love America, because we’re all screwed up. You love your family, but you fight. But at the end of the night, you love them.”
Bell says he plans nothing during his interaction with fans, and his musings are often spontaneous. When Brandon Inge homers for the Stars, Bell stands, leads the group of fans around him in an ovation and shouts, “I know him! I know him!’ ”
When Derby left fielder Noah Bland smacks into the wall on an attempted catch, Bell offers sympathy from afar: “He’s in college, he’ll heal. Chicks dig scars.”
Bell stays stationary for Friday’s interactions, a departure from earlier games when he was hawking raffle tickets in the tournament’s nightly promotion for charity and sprinting up the aisles to engage with more fans than the ones in immediate proximity.
His fellow relievers are more routine-oriented and not quite as impulsive. They look at Bell in wondrous amazement.
“I’m in awe of the guy, I just don’t understand where all the energy comes from,” teammate Brian Gordon said. “He’s a phenomenal human being and he’s just contagious. He keeps this bullpen alive, I mean what a great human being.”
Here’s Bell, who saved 132 games for the Padres from 2009-11, on what it takes to be a closer:
“It’s just something about us, but it’s not that we’re nuts, like I am, or that you’re a mean guy. Because that’s usually what the persona is – we fear nothing. I don’t like snakes. I don’t really like spider webs.”
On his wife, Nicole:
“She was really, really hot and I’m like, ‘I’m not letting her go.’ She said yes. First beautiful girl, first hot girl that ever said yes to me. I was not letting that go.”
On the Escape Room at the Alley in Wichita:
“Me, (Brett) Tomko, (Jason) Repko were in there. We needed just one or two or 100 clues to get out, but we did. It was the hardest one. We made it with 17 minutes to spare.”
Bell loves the band Linkin Park and despises social media because of its lack of accountability. He doesn’t drink beer, instead preferring iced tea or water on a hot day.
His true loves are baseball – in real life and on video games – and his family. This week in Wichita, he has spread the love.
“I’m just here having a good time,” Bell said. “I came here last year and had a great time talking with fans. This year I’m a little more comfortable. I want to be a personable player, not a big-leaguer, I guess you could say.”
NBC World Series
Championship game, 7 p.m.