Thursday, December 1, 2011

Happy Trails Heater

One of the hardest things in sports, in my opinion, is replacing a legend. Being the guy after the guy that a city adored seems to be a nearly thankless job. Will you ever not be compared to the person you replaced?

In modern sports history, the list is short of those who have replaced a legend and succeeded or even surpassed them on their own. Aaron Rodgers replacing Brett Favre is perhaps the most successful example. I said the list was short. Meanwhile, the list of a vacuum being left by icons leaving or retiring is long. The Dolphins haven't been able to replace Dan Marino for 20 years. The Bulls spent roughly the same time trying to find someone to capture the city's imagination the way Michael Jordan did, finding a possible superstar in Derrick Rose.

Heath Bell became a Padre via a trade that made little noise at the time. The Padres traded Ben Johnson and Jon Adkins to the Mets for Bell and Royce Ring. Bell, at the time, was tolling away on the round trip shuttle between New York and Norfolk, never finding his place in the Mets plans. In San Diego, he replaced Scott Linebrink as the 8th inning bridge to Trevor Time. Until 2009, when the previously unthinkable happen and Hoffman signed as a free agent with Milwaukee. Gone was Trevor Time, a San Diego tradition for more than a decade.

For the first time in 15 years, someone not named Trevor Hoffman was being asked to close games in San Diego. Heath Bell was tasked with the job of replacing a player that rivals only Tony Gwynn in importance to this franchise.

Good luck? Hardly needed. Hardly needed. In his first year as the full-time closer Heath Bell saved 42 games, earning his first of 3 All Star appearances. He quickly became a fan favorite amongst the friar faithful. He's quirky, jokester personality was straight out of central casting for a closer. He was goofy. He was fun. He took blown saves on the chin. He celebrated every save like it was Game 7, no matter what the calendar said. No one will ever replace Trevor Hoffman in San Diego. Heath Bell never tried, nor ever wanted to. He was just "Heater."

I read once that fans in San Diego expect "the show" with a closer as much as results. Trevor Hoffman is often credited with starting the now prevalent tradition of a closers entrance music. Heath Bell picked up that mantle, racing in in full sprint from the bullpen as Breaking Benjamin blared from the speakers. Was it as iconic as AC/DC? Hardly. But it was fun. And in the end, baseball is suppose to be fun.

And I think that's what I'll miss most about Heath Bell. He was fun. I like winning. I like success. But I like having fun watching baseball more than anything. Heath Bell provided all three, being one of the best closers in baseball after being a throw away piece in a nearly forgotten trade.

For all the saves you gave us, for all the honest interviews you gave, for your Twitter Q&A's and your now infamous All Star Game slide, thank you Heater. You were what I love about baseball and athletes. You were good. And you were fun. And at the end of the day that's all any fan can ask of a player.

Happy Trails Heater. Enjoy Miami.

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