Bells proud of more than just their unique lineage
From Gus to Buddy to David, family has learned many life lessons from baseball
The honk, as David Bell recalls some 30-plus years later, was always the giveaway that his dad was looking on.
Buddy Bell, dressed in full uniform, disguised only by the T-shirt he would throw over his jersey top, always preferred to watch from the car. His Major League career kept him away from his three sons enough that he wasn't going to let anyone distract him in the minutes he had to watch.
And those moments were rare, almost always squeezed between batting practice with the Rangers and the start of his game that night. Then a Major League infielder, Buddy Bell would slip away as often as he could so he could merely be another dad at the Little League game.
"To imagine that now, in full uniform, in his car," said David Bell, the Cardinals' assistant hitting coach, before stopping and shaking his head. "That was the kind of father he was and showed the amount of interest that he had. Obviously, the game can keep you from doing things you want to do with your family, so it takes that kind of effort to be able to do both."
The Bells are in every way baseball lifers, with both David and Buddy never knowing a time where the game was not an integral part of their lives. When Buddy, now 62 and an assistant general manager with the White Sox, was born, his father, Gus, was just a little more than a year removed from having made his Major League debut with the Pirates.
Twenty-one years later, David, the eldest of five children, was born near the close of his father's first full big league season. He'd then follow Buddy's 18-year career with a 12-year one of his own, leaving only a dozen years from 1950-2006 in which there was not a member of the Bell family playing Major League ball.
Mike Bell, one of David's two younger brothers, also had a cup of coffee in the Majors with Cincinnati in 2000. He is now the director of player development for the D-backs.
"The normalcy was pretty easy, because it's what we always knew," Buddy said. "We have never really been in awe of it. It's what we do, and it's what we did. But it never really did define our life. We're proud of other things, too."
Indeed, Buddy is quick to downplay his family's unique lineage as one of five three-generation MLB families. He prefers to share stories of his son's humility, noting that their character traits were passed down from the patriarch of this baseball line, with whom David was especially close.
Normalcy for David and his brothers involved their dad honking his approval from the front seat of his car and the countless days they spent at Major League ballparks -- first in Cleveland, then Texas and finally Cincinnati, as the family moved with the father's career.
Times were different back then, as illustrated by Buddy's ability to leave the ballpark in between batting practice and first pitch to watch his sons. The boys also had mostly free rein in big league ballparks, even able to hang out in the dugout during games. They tagged along with their dad almost every free day they had, often staying at the park until he left around midnight.
"It was a great life," David recalled. "We were very close to the game."
And more importantly, they were close to their dad.
"What I remember most is the moments here and there with my dad," David said. "We would be sitting at his locker and we'd be talking about who knows what, maybe even the game as I got older. Just that time that it allowed us to be together as father and son, because without that time at the ballpark, we really wouldn't have seen him much."
The offseasons provided Buddy with an open schedule for his children, whom he would coach in basketball. And in his dad's absence, David grew particularly close to his grandfather, who was conveniently living in Cincinnati when Buddy was traded to the Reds in the summer of 1985.
Gus was a storyteller, a trait David cherished since there was very little video he could watch of his grandfather's playing days. So instead, he listened, hearing tall tales about Gus' teammates in Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, New York and Milwaukee, and about what it was like to play in a World Series, something David later did with the Giants in 2002.
Gus was a regular at David's high school games, and the two talked daily when David began his climb in the Minors. When his grandson was playing within reasonable proximity, Gus would make the drive.
"He was an extremely positive guy," David said. "He was my grandfather, so he didn't have to be my dad and do the tough part. We could be friends. And just the stories he told and again the approach to the game, what's important about how you play the game. They were just things that stick with you forever."
Gus lived long enough, too, to learn that his grandson had succeeded in following in his footsteps. Lying in a hospital bed after suffering a heart attack, Gus tuned his radio to the Indians' May 7, 1995, game against the Tigers. In the seventh inning, David came to the plate for his first Major League at-bat.
Four days later, Gus, at the age of 66, passed away.
"He held on long enough to hear that," said Buddy, who listened to that May game alongside his father in the hospital room. "The thing I'm most proud of my sons is how they treat other people and the fairness they show in dealing with other people. Where they get that from is probably my dad. They were very close with my dad."
David went on to have a 12-year career that spanned six big league cities. To those who had watched David's development, his ability to not only play into the Majors, but stick as long as he did came as little surprise.
David was 4 years old when he first told his parents that he intended to be a Major League player. A few years later, while spending time with his father at Spring Training, he got emotional. Buddy asked him what was wrong.
"I just want it to happen now," David exclaimed. It of course, was his Major League career.
"He was anxious, because he wanted to play ball," Buddy said. "He didn't want to do anything else. I told him, 'Well, you have to go to school. You have to do your chores. If you play ball, you have to be smart. You have to do other things.' But yeah, he's always had the desire and the aspirations to do what he's doing now."
In the same way David followed the family's playing precedent, he later emulated his father's path to a post-playing career still in the game. Buddy spent 13 seasons on Major League staffs, including nine years as a big league manager -- three years each with Detroit, Colorado and Kansas City.
Buddy managed against his son a handful of times, something he still remembers as "awful."
"I didn't enjoy it at all," Buddy said. "I liked seeing him; I didn't like competing against him. I would hope he did well and that we won."
Following his retirement as a player in 2006, David moved quickly into a coaching career, first as a Minor League manager and now as a Major League coach. He relied heavily on his father's advice as he learned to navigate strategies and personalities. The reliance of son on father also fostered a rekindling of the relationship.
"Just seeing that he could be great at something beyond playing was an inspiration, and I think that led me into managing in the Minor Leagues," David said. "He was real supportive when I was finished playing the game, because you really don't know what you're going to do when you're finished. But he really encouraged me. And to be able to have someone to talk to that you speak the same language is really a good sounding board. You know they have the best intentions."
Baseball still remains the strongest family bond, but not the singular one. This is a family proud of its lineage, but also of its character, one that has remained exceptionally close through the grind of so many baseball seasons.
"I think I'm proud not to just say that it's three generations, but to actually have lived it and the learning that has come from it," David said. "To see the success, but also the humility -- the life lessons that have been learned through the game through three generations has been a big part of our lives."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.