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Major League Baseball's spring training is an odd endeavor. It was originally used as a way to get baseball players in shape after an off-season of sloth, but nowadays ballplayers are in quite good shape year-round. The only reason the six-week training camp endures is because teams make money by selling tickets for the exhibition games.

Like many disciplines, MLB employs plenty of idiots, and six weeks is often enough for stupid people to say or do stupid things. In just the spring of 2002, in fact, there were three funny happenings: Jeff Kent broke his wrist while popping wheelies on his motorcycle, then lied about it and said it was a car-washing accident; Ruben Rivera stole Derek Jeter's glove and bat and sold them to a collector; and Derek Bell threatened to go into "Operation Shutdown."

Outfielder Derek Bell can not be accused of having low self-esteem. He is one of many players in baseball history who puts up good statistics in one season and then pretends that those numbers represent his "true" talent rather the limit of his skills. In 1998 Bell hit for a .314 batting average, scored 111 runs and had 108 RBIs. That's good stuff. But in 1999 he hit .236. Other than 1998, Bell has never (and most likely will never) scored more than 87 runs in a season, and his career batting average is .276. In reality, Bell is a decent-to-mediocre player; say a poor man's Kevin Bass.

Somehow Bell convinced the Pittsburgh Pirates to give him a two-year, $9 million contract after the 2000 season, despite hitting under .200 for the second half of the year for the New York Mets, who made it to the World Series after Bell was injured. In 2001, Bell was simply terrible, hitting .173 with just five home runs in 156 at bats. The Pirates would have loved to get rid of him, but you can't trade a .173 hitter who's due to earn $4.5 million in 2002.

Going into the 2002 season, the Pirates were stuck with Bell on their roster, but they didn't have to play him. Outfielder Armando Rios was ready to come back from an ACL injury, and he couldn't be much worse than Bell. So Pittsburgh implied that there would be a competition for the starting right field job. This pissed Bell off; he couldn't imagine the indignity of competing for his God-given position.

Nobody told me I was in competition. If there is competition, somebody better let me know. If there is competition, they better eliminate me out of the race and go ahead and do what they're going to do with me. I ain't never hit in spring training and I never will.

If it ain't settled with me out there, then they can trade me. I ain't going out there to hurt myself in spring training battling for a job. If it is (a competition), then I'm going into "Operation Shutdown." Tell them exactly what I said. I haven't competed for a job since 1991.
Derek Bell, as quoted by the Associated Press.

A day after his comments, Bell pulled his groin muscle, but many assumed that was code-speak for "not gonna play anyway." In any case, Bell left the team at the end of spring training in sort of a "You can't fire me! I quit!" gesture. The Pirates released him a day later but still had to pay him the $4.5 million. Shockingly, Bell has not appeared in a Major League Baseball game since.

The lesson is: Don't sign crappy players to $9 million guaranteed contracts.

Sources/more information:
http://sports.yahoo.com/mlb/news/ap/20020329/ap-pirates-bell.html — Associated Press story
http://espn.go.com/mlb/columns/stark_jayson/1361677.html — ESPN column on Bell
http://www.baseball-reference.com/b/bellde01.shtml — Bell's career stats, via baseball-reference.com

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