Toronto's George Bell slugs way toward MVP honors. Yankee pitcher Tommy John on his late-career improvement

George Bell of the Toronto Blue Jays, who is probably going to win the American League's Most Valuable Player award in a walk, has always had a problem receiving his due recognition. It's as though nobody has bothered to look the past two years at his totals of 59 home runs, 203 RBIs, 66 doubles, and 188 runs scored. Cincinnati third baseman Buddy Bell is better known; Tinker Bell has better lines; Ma Bell better connections; and Bela Lugosi a better appreciation of bats!

Of course if George played in New York or Los Angeles, he'd be out in paperback by now, or at least coming off a spot with Johnny Carson on the ``Tonight'' show. He leads the league in RBIs by a wide margin (he had 124 at this writing), and shares the lead in home runs (45) and runs scored (106). He also teams with Jesse Barfield and Lloyd Moseby to form one of the best defensive outfields in the game.

Part of Bell's media problem is himself. Because he didn't like some of the things written about his behavior and temperament when he first came up, he no longer gives formal interviews. And while's he's been known to let his guard down and talk informally around the batting cage, he reacts to the sight of notebooks the way he would to a hand grenade with its firing pin removed.

But put a bat in George's hands, runners on base, and the game on the line, and it's Bell who explodes. What he did against Oakland recently (five RBIs including a grand slam homer) was typical of what he's been doing all season. It's hard to believe that Philadelphia left this man unprotected in the 1980 minor league draft, only to have the Blue Jays net him for a mere $25,000.

If Bell has a strike zone, it's anywhere from here to Calcutta. He works on the principle that if he can reach it he can probably hit it. Impatience at the plate may be his greatest weakness. His first three full seasons in the majors he walked an average of 36 times, a very low figure for an everyday player. Surprisingly, though, for a free-swinger, he doesn't strike out that much.

``The only way to pitch to Bell,'' one scout told me, ``is to keep moving the ball around against him and hope that he hits it right at somebody. If he's got a weakness, our club hasn't found it yet. When George first came up, he didn't adjust to pitchers who changed speeds against him as well as he does now, so you could fool him occasionally. But basically he's the kind of hitter who starts swinging the moment he leaves his hotel room.''

Bell is another of those products from the Dominican Republic, like Juan Marichal, the Alou brothers (Matty, Felipe, and Jes'us), Manny Mota, etc., who come all assembled and ready to play. And at age 27, he may still have his best years ahead of him.

Three of George's brothers have also performed professionally. Two of them, Rolando, 21, and Juan, 19, are in the Los Angeles Dodgers farm system, while the third, Jos'e, is currently out of baseball.

Two things Bell's brothers may never acquire, though, are George's game face, which always looks as though it belongs in a scabbard, or his swing, which is one long, rippling, rhythmic display of power. Tommy John wants consistent calls

Ordinarily, pitchers are careful about discussing baseball's shrinking strike zone where anyone outside their craft can hear them. Tommy John doesn't mind addressing the subject, though - perhaps because after 23 years in the major leagues he figures he's entitled to speak his mind.

``As a pitcher, I don't like any action by the umpires that takes part of my work zone away from me,'' the veteran New York Yankee left-hander told me. ``But I understand baseball's reasoning for making things tough for pitchers and, in fact, I guess I actually agree with it.

``When you're running a business, and baseball is a business, you have to do everything you can to please the paying customer. By making pitchers throw strikes, you're going to get more extra base hits, more home runs, and more runs scored, which translates into more tickets sold. My only beef is with umpires who aren't consistent. I mean those who have a different strike zone every inning. But if a guy is consistent with his calls, no matter how bad they are, I can live with that.''

Asked why, at age 44, he is in double figures in wins for the first time since 1983, Tommy replied: ``It's because I'm throwing two pitches effectively now that I wasn't even using a few years ago. One is a change-up, and the other a slider.

``Mike Marshall [who once made more than 100 relief appearances during a single season for the Dodgers] taught me the change-up in Florida in 1985,'' John continued. ``And last year, Jim Kaat showed me how to throw a slider that really works. I guess what this means is that even veteran pitchers need to continue their education, because anyone who thinks he knows it all in this business is obviously making a mistake.''

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