Derek Bell was a popular player in San Diego. He played a smooth center field, he had 20-home run power, and as of the 1994 season, he was one of the few positive returns from the year-long fire sale that saw the team trade away all-stars like Tony Fernandez, Gary Sheffield, Fred McGriff, and Bruce Hurst.
Padres fans had just begun to heal from owner Tom Werner’s savage tearing apart of the team between mid-1992 and mid-1993. And Bell had been a key part of the healing, hitting 21 homers in 1993 and raking at a .311 clip through August 11 in 1994. But that’s the day that baseball ended. The players went on strike, and the rest of the nation’s baseball fans turned as bitter as Padres fans had been for the previous year and a half. Fans in San Diego would have to wait until Opening Day of 1995, or perhaps even later, to see the 25-year old Bell roaming center field at the Murph again.
Fortunately for Padres fans, Werner sold the Padres in December of that year, to a group led by John Moores. The move was less fortunate for fans of Bell, because within a week of Moores’ group taking over, Bell was traded.
Padres fans didn’t quite know how to react to the trade. They were still hurting from losing every popular player on the team under the old owners. And in addition to losing the popular Bell, the Friars had shipped off to Houston their 34-homer man, Phil Plantier, infielders Ricky Gutierrez and Craig Shipley, and pitchers Doug Brocail and Pedro Martinez (no, not that Pedro Martinez).
I was pretty new to San Diego at the time, having moved here just after the strike started in August. But I distinctly remember people being upset about losing Derek Bell. They seemed less concerned about Plantier, perhaps because his 1994 numbers failed to live up to the promise of his 100-RBI 1993 season.
But that December trade turned out to be one of the most important moments in Padres history. Because for Bell, Plantier, and the others, the Padres received third baseman Ken Caminiti and center fielder Steve Finley, along with Andujar Cedeno, Roberto Petagine, and Brian Williams (and PTBNL Sean Fesh).
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Bell fans were still a bit upset in 1995, when their former favorite Padre finished fourth in the National League batting race for the Astros with a .334 average. But they were coming around to Finley, too. Finley was a tremendously graceful center fielder, and scored 104 runs while hitting .297 and stealing 36 bases in his first San Diego season. Caminiti, meanwhile, picked up the role of team slugger, and hit .302 with 26 homers and 94 RBI while playing some of the most exciting third base baseball fans had seen since Brooks Robinson.
Plantier, meanwhile, played only 22 games for Houston before being traded back to the Padres. But his career was on a fast downslide, and he never again reached double figures in homers.
Padres fans are no doubt familiar with what happened next. The team went to the playoffs for the first time in 12 years in 1996, and made their second appearance in the World Series two years later. Caminiti won the only MVP award in Padres history in 1996, hitting .326 with 40 homers and 130 RBI. Finley found a power stroke, and went on to a 2,500-hit, 300-homer career, while winning five Gold Gloves in center field.
Finley and Caminiti were the cornerstones of the Padres offense in the mid-90s, along with 8-time NL batting champion and face of the franchise, Tony Gwynn, who was in the midst of his five consecutive seasons hitting over .350.
Derek Bell finished with a solid career. 11 years, .276 batting average, two years with 100+ ribbies, one year over 100 runs. He finished 14th in the MVP balloting that first year in Houston, and found quite a bit of popularity in that city early on, as one of the “Killer B’s” along with Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell. Those who continued to follow Bell are aware of the difficulties he faced late in his career and since retirement.
But Bell remains one of the most important cogs in Padres history. Without him, the trade that brought two postseason appearances and two of the most popular players in franchise history to San Diego might never have happened.