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Jay Bell again aims for World Series, while remaining steady in his faith

PHOENIX (BP)–As spring training begins, Jay Bell has the World Series in his sights, hoping to reverse four previous postseason tries that came up empty.

Three of those appearances were in the early 1990s with the Pittsburgh Pirates, then last year Bell, a Baptist layman, was a key to the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 100-victory season, which catapulted them into the National League Championship Series. But they bowed out in last October’s first round, losing three of four games to the New York Mets.

“The individual stuff is wonderful, but when you have team success it’s much more enjoyable,” said the Diamondbacks’ second baseman, who swatted a team-record 38 home runs in 1999.

To go with that, he scored 132 runs, drove home 112 more and hit .289, not far below his single-season best mark of .310. The performance boosted his major league career average to .269, two points higher than after 1998.

But don’t expect the Florida native to aim for a personal repeat.

“As far as trying to emulate last season, I’ve never really set goals for myself,” Bell said. “During the course of the year, what I’ve tried to do is do my share on a daily basis to help the team win. With the team we’ve put together the last couple years, it’s been a very enjoyable place to play.”

Not to mention a pleasant place to live. Although they retain their membership at Bell Shoals Baptist Church in Brandon, Fla., Jay and his wife, Laura, have settled in as year-round residents of the Phoenix area.

Last fall they began attending Foothills Baptist Church, pastored by former pro football player Brian Goodman.

Christianity has been a part of Bell’s life since just before his 12th birthday. Growing up in church, he had often heard the gospel. But something “clicked” when a guest singer performed at Prairie Pass United Methodist in Pensacola, Fla.

“It was just a point in my life when I was ready,” Bell said of his decision to accept Jesus Christ. “One of the things that’s so special, I think, is that God puts someone in your life at some point where they present the gospel and you end up saying, ‘It’s time for me to commit my life to the Lord.'”

“He has a wonderfully boring testimony,” said Kelly Green, staff evangelist at Bell Shoals. “He grew up in a good home and he and Laura are childhood sweethearts. He’s remained true to Christ. He’s very quiet and a big family man.”

Green and Bell became good friends after meeting in 1993. The baseball player serves on the board of Green’s ministry, which includes Frontliners, a cooperative venture with the North American Mission Board. The summertime crusades bring teens into an area for a salvation-oriented “youth blitz.”

Very low-key, Bell sometimes seems embarrassed by his celebrity status, Green said. He has observed the player talking to anybody who approaches him and staying after games — even big losses — to sign autographs.

“He’s been a blessing to us,” Green said. “He connects with people who have been raised in church all their life. He encourages them that they don’t have to have a ‘gutter to glory’ testimony to have a testimony.”

However, Bell does encourage new believers to find someone who can disciple them. If there is one thing he could change from the past, it’s to have had a Christian mentor after his salvation.

“I basically lived a Christian lifestyle that wasn’t bad,” Bell said. “But there was no growth. One of the things I’ve really had on my heart, especially since I’ve had kids, is to make sure not only do I present the gospel, but that I also disciple those who come to the Lord that I’m around to disciple.”

He also wants to be consistent in his lifestyle. For seven and a half months out of the year, other players have a chance to watch him up close and see how he reacts to the ups and downs of pro baseball.

Ironically, he said he may have a better chance to demonstrate his beliefs during a “down” season than during 1999’s record-setting performance.

“I would say you have more opportunity to witness during bad years than good,” Bell said. “Your teammates want to see how you react in both situations.”

So do fans. And around Phoenix, they love Bell, said David Johnson, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church. The church hosted him for a Sunday night service in mid-January to promote Frontliners.

Though not advertised or heavily promoted, the event drew more than 500 people. After speaking, Bell stayed late to autograph everything from pictures to baseballs to tennis shoes. He was still signing and smiling while the pastor was trying to shoo kids away.

“That was a very strong statement to me,” Johnson said. “The reason he’s received so well is because people love him.”

Another thing that impressed him was Bell’s statement about the highlight of his career.

Instead of mentioning a playoff series or great game, the Arizona star talked about hitting a grand slam home run last season that won a woman $1 million. Her name was drawn in a contest sponsored by a local dairy producer, with the round tripper coming in the perfect inning.

“He said what he did changed that woman’s life,” the pastor said. “He has very strong moral character, but he doesn’t say a lot about it.”

Though modest about his athletic achievements, Bell doesn’t think the limelight includes too much pressure. Since he has been open about his faith, people should to expect that he will act a certain way, the player said.

“Whenever you are open about it, and you claim Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, you’re going to be watched very closely,” Bell said. “There’s a lot of non-believers out there who take religion very seriously … even though we as believers understand it’s a relationship.

“We understand we’re going to fall way short, but, yes, I believe we are held to a higher standard. We need to conduct ourselves in such a manner.”

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  • Ken Walker