To paraphrase a line from Henry Hill, as far back as I can remember, I've always been a Rangers fan. I was born in 1971, the team arrived in Texas in 1972, and from the time I was a small child, I would attend games, listen to them on the radio (WBAP 820), and watch excitedly on those rare occasions when the Rangers would be on TV.
The first player I can really remember being my favorite was Toby Harrah. He was a fan favorite in the mid-70s, and I remember when I was about 6 years old my grandmother taking me and my 3 year old brother Sam to a Jack-in-the-Box out in the mid-cities somewhere so we could get our picture taken with Harrah. Somewhere, I'd wager my grandmother still has a copy of that picture, with me standing next to Toby and my brother sitting on his lap.
So December 8, 1978, was initially a sad day for me. That was the day that Toby Harrah was traded straight up to the Cleveland Indians for third baseman Buddy Bell.
Looking back on it, it was a weird trade, because Harrah and Bell were both third basemen (although Harrah was a recent convert to the position, having played shortstop previously). Harrah was entering his age 30 season, Bell was entering his age 27 season, and both were coming off down years. I think the sense at the time was that Bell was a terrific fielder with questions about his bat, while Harrah was the steadier hitter, but couldn't touch Bell's glovework.
One would think that 7 year old AJM would have hated Bell immediately, given that my favorite player was traded for him, but there were two mitigating factors. First, Bell was a third baseman, and that was the same position I had always played in T-ball and Pee Wee baseball...I had a natural preference, as a result, for third basemen. Secondly, his name was "Buddy," and as a 7 year old boy, I thought that was pretty cool.
As it turned out, the straight up swap ended up being one of the Rangers' most successful trades, and Bell became a favorite not just of mine, but of Rangers fans all over the Metroplex. In his first season, he played in every game, led the American League in at bats, and put up a .299/.327/.451 line while winning a Gold Glove and finishing 10th in the MVP balloting. Bell followed that up with a .329/.379/.498 campaign in 1980, an All Star appearance, and another Gold Glove.
Bell's performance as a Ranger was impeccable...in his six full seasons with the team, he took home a Gold Glove each year, had four All Star appearances, won a Silver Slugger, and appeared on the MVP ballot five times.
From 1979-1984 Bell posted a bWAR of 35.8 and an fWAR of 34.2. That average of almost 6 WAR per year is even more impressive when you consider he missed a month in 1980 with an injury, and lost over a third of the 1981 season because of the player's strike.
Alas, all good runs must come to an end, and Bell's heroic stint in Texas ended in the middle of the 1985 season. The Rangers were terrible and re-building, Bell was struggling, and it was determined that both the team and the player would be better off with Bell moving on. On July 19, the Rangers dealt Bell to his hometown Cincinnati Reds, the team that his father had played for for years, in exchange for Duane Walker and a PTBNL, who ended up being pitcher Jeff Russell. Bell returned to Texas as a free agent in 1989, signed to fill a bench role, but he was a shell of his old self, and when I think of Bell, I think of him as the All Star third baseman, not the bench player who ended his career here.
Bell is oftentimes overlooked when talking about the great players of his era, which is a shame, because he's a borderline Hall of Fame case. He has a career fWAR of 61.7 and a career bWAR of 65.9. Bell ranks 14th overall among third basemen in Fangraphs' version of WAR (although he's about to be passed by Adrian Beltre), and Fangraphs ranks him as the 2nd best defender at third base all time, well behind Brooks Robinson and about 10 runs ahead of third place Adrian Beltre. Bell is 14th in career bWAR, as well, just behind Beltre and just ahead of Ken Boyer. While Bell wasn't a big time power hitter, he logged 201 career homers to go along with his 2514 career hits.
Bell was a special player for a number of years for the Rangers, someone who is inexorably linked in my mind with my childhood. When we're talking about the pantheon of great Rangers players, Buddy Bell is someone who is at the top of the list.
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