Ninety minutes before game time on April 27 at Shea Stadium, Derek Bell, the Mets right-fielder and the hottest hitter in New York, stood in front of his locker getting ready for the road.
A reporter approached him to ask a question, but Mr. Bell put his hand up and said, very politely, “I’ll be with you all in a minute. I got to get my coordination right.”
There, lined up before him, were five pairs of Mauri alligator-skin shoes:tan-and-olive, lime-olive-white, yellow-brown, gray-slate and light-blue, and solid dark blue. Nearby were five matching alligator-skin belts. Five suits hung in his locker next to five shirts. He stood before it all, deciding which shoes went with which suits. His suits are custom-made; he wears them only once, before giving them away to friends. So it was very important that he get his coordination right.
“Yo Vinny!” he called out suddenly to Vinny Greco, the assistant equipment manager. “I need some hanging bags!”
The clubhouse guys are not yet quite accustomed to Mr. Bell. In fact, he has taken everyone by surprise. He came to the Mets as a throw-in in its December trade with the Houston Astros, when they got pitcher Mike Hampton. The Astros basically forced the Mets to take Mr. Bell and his bloated$5-million-per-year contract. At 31, he wasn’t supposed to be all that good. Plagued by rib cage and groin injuries, he batted a dismal .236 last season, and bottomed out with the Houston media and the Astros fans after he slammed manager Larry Dierker in the press the day Mr. Dierker returned from brain surgery. Mr. Dierker had merely moved him down in the batting order.
But in his first month with the Mets, Mr. Bell has thrived. His .370 average is seventh in the National League, and he leads the league in hits. On April 24, he was named National League Player of the Week. In a six-game stretch he batted over .600.
What’s more, he has added a little life to a clubhouse that’s more mature than those in Shea’s past, what with a brooding Mike Piazza, a moody Rickey Henderson and an Edgardo Alfonzo so focused he could almost make it as a Yankee. Into that hushed atmosphere comes Mr. Bell, the sad-eyed, hyperactive clown of New York baseball, with the soul of a 13-year-old and the old-man face of Mr. Magoo.
“He’s a breath of fresh air,” said Keith Hernandez, who played at Shea back in the free-wheeling days of Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry and Lenny Dykstra. “There are a lot of serious guys on that team. There’s too much seriousness. He’s just a character, and there should be more personalities like him in baseball.”
“He’s got a big, ol’ heart,” said Gene Pemberton, the Astros’ team chaplain, who developed a close friendship with Mr. Bell when he was in Houston. “But when people start getting on him, it can get to him. You all can really rattle people’s cages up there, can’t you? He says it doesn’t bother him, but wait ’til he gets in a little slump.”
Something About Derek
“Titties!” Mr. Bell called out. He has a habit of calling out random lyrics to whatever hip-hop or rap song happens to be playing on the clubhouse stereo. Then he launched into a little rap of his own.
“I’m just Derek Bell,” Mr. Bell said. “I come to the ballpark every day, I go home, I walk the streets with all the crowds in New York. And in New York, if you have good rapport with the media, you talk to ‘em when they wanna talk to you, you know what I’m saying? There ain’t no problem. You gotta do your job, I gotta do mine. If I fuck up, you gotta do your job. You know, you read the paper, and it says, ‘Derek Bell made an error, cost them the game.’ They read it while they’re eating breakfast, or while they’re drinking their coffee, or while they’re, you know, on the toilet taking a shit. And guess what? Next paper comes out the next day, and you did something good, you know what I’m saying, they’re gonna get the next paper the next day, and they’re gonna read that. If some guy’s an asshole to reporters, and he don’t relate to them, that’s when you’re gonna get on their bad side. You might write something bad, but that ain’t gonna stop you from being my friend, you know what I’m saying? Why should I be an asshole to you guys when you write about how I did something wrong, if I did something wrong, and I admit it, you know? It doesn’t bother me.”
Much of the time, Mr. Bell lives on his 63-foot yacht, the Bell 14, which is docked between piers 59 and 60 at Chelsea Piers. It’s a sleek, white Sea Ray with a Yamaha XL1200 jet ski strapped to the stern. As for other accessories: he wears a gold necklace with a giant gold pendant, studded with diamonds, shaped like home plate with a big, gold baseball jutting out from it.
He grew up in the tough Belmont Heights section of Tampa, Fla. He and Little League teammate Gary Sheffield-now a star for the Los Angeles Dodgers-worshipped Mr. Sheffield’s uncle, ex-Mets pitching ace Dwight Gooden, who wore No. 16. Today, it’s Mr. Bell’s number. He came up with the Toronto Blue Jays, then played in San Diego before moving to Houston.
There are times, he said, when he finds himself walking around Manhattan, near the Doubletree hotel in Times Square where he lives when he’s not on the Bell 14, when he forgets he’s famous. He’s tough to miss, with his baggy eyes and shaved head. When people turn to look at him, he turns, too, to see what everyone is looking at.
“You know, I step outside to go to McDonald’s or something, go to Wendy’s, and people look and say, ‘Oh!'” he said, imitating someone doing a double take. “And then I turn around and look, and then I remember, ‘Oh, damn!’ Because, you know, I’m out there walking around right there with everyone, waiting for the light to change.”
Back in the clubhouse, before the game, his teammates were trickling in. They saw him getting his coordination right and started getting in on the act. Pitcher Pat Mahomes grabbed one of Mr. Bell’s suit jackets and tried it on over his T-shirt, and did a little dance. Outfielder Jon Nunnally joined in. Clutching a can of Mountain Dew, Mr. Bell danced across the clubhouse to pitcher John Franco’s locker, where a knob on the wall controls the volume of the clubhouse music. He cranked it up and danced away. Mr. Franco turned it back down.
At his locker, Mr. Bell assembled his road-trip entertainment. Dressed in his uniform pants, spikes and no shirt, he sorted through his stack of electronic equipment: portable CD player, video game machines, battery recharger, headphones and dozens of double-A batteries.
“Don’t fuck with me!” he sang out, in unison with the music.
He grabbed a stack of about two-dozen DVD movies, including There’s Something About Mary , Bowfinger and The Thirteenth Floor . He shoved in a book of 200 CD’s, about 150 Sony PlayStation video games and a stack of brand-new discs from the likes of R&B crooners Carl Thomas and Gerald Levert.
“This is just for the plane,” he said, not looking up as he focused on fitting everything neatly into his suitcases.
Then it was time to get ready to play. In the game, a 12-inning heartbreaker that the Mets lost, 2-1, Mr. Bell walked four times, struck out once and grounded out to the shortstop. The clubhouse afterward was sober, but not glum. Mr. Bell sat in front of his locker massaging the alligator-skin shoes he had decided to wear on the plane.
“Everybody’s upbeat,” he said. “We’re not disappointed at all, by no means. We couldn’t have won all these games.”
Then Mr. Bell stood up and prepared to hit the showers. “I gotta shave my head,” he said.