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Fifteen years ago, on March 17, 2002, Robert Dvorchak, a beat writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, entered the Pirates spring training clubhouse at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Florida. It was mostly empty because the Pirates were playing the Cleveland Indians about 80 miles away in Winter Haven, but veteran outfielder Derek Bell had not made the trip. His journey was just getting started.
Dvorchak approached Bell, who was flanked by journeyman righthander Pat Rapp, and with a simple request kicked off one of the most overplayed hands in sports: "Derek, do you have [?] a minute?" Dvorchak wanted to know what Bell thought of the competition for right field, to which Bell responded "What competition?"
Bell, primarily a right fielder at that point in his career, was coming off an injury-plagued, ineffectual first season with the Pirates, and showed no sign of improvement that spring, batting .175. Craig Wilson, coming off a solid rookie season, and Armando Rios were in the running for the spot, Brian Giles was cemented in left, and Bell was no longer a viable center fielder. It was right field or nothing. Two weeks before the season, Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield still didn't know who his right fielder was going to be, telling Dvorchak it wasn't an "enviable position to be in" that close to the season. Manager Lloyd McClendon knew it, too. The only one who didn't seem to know he was going to be battling for a position was Bell himself. Welcome to Operation Shutdown.
Rather than compete for a spot on the roster and prove that he deserved it, this man who slashed .173/.287/.288 the year before basically told the front office to pencil him in as the starter, or he was quite literally shutting it down.
"Ask Littlefield and ask Mac if I'm in competition. 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,'" Bell told Dvorchak when he first heard about the competition. It earned an incredulous laugh from Rapp.
"Tell them exactly what I said. I haven't competed for a job since 1991," Bell went on. "If I don't [start], then I guess I'll be out of here."
At that point, the last time Bell competed for a job also happened to be the last time the Pittsburgh Pirates were worth a damn. Pittsburgh made it to the National League Championship Series three straight years from 1990 to 1992, but lost each time. What followed was a 20-year run of sub-.500 baseball, including 53- and 58-win seasons.
Dvorchak—who apparently has a knack for military-related national stories, not only broke Operation Shutdown, but was also responsible for coining the term "Legionnaire's disease" while covering the outbreak at the 1976 American Legion convention in Philadelphia—summed up that period in Pittsburgh history to me like this:
"Once in 2001, McClendon stole first base in an argument with an umpire. In 2003, Randall Simon clubbed that sausage in the race in Milwaukee. Kris Benson signed a four-year deal and then announced he was having Tommy John surgery, and Anna Benson was a real hoot to be around. Once in 2001, after the Pirates had lost three starting pitchers to injuries, Jose Silva was hit by a line drive and broke his leg. That was the same time owner Kevin McClatchy was taking heat for charging patrons $3 for a bottle of water, and he reluctantly agreed to let people bring in their own bottled water."
Casting aside hindsight, though, things had seemed to be looking up (sort of?) in 2001. Pittsburgh's PNC Park, with its spanning view of the city, was set to open, and Cam Bonifay, then the general manager, was finally spending money after eight miserable years. Some of that money went to Bell, who joined the Pirates that year on a two-year, $10 million contract after he slashed .266/.348/.425 and hit 18 home runs for the New York Mets.
That first year for in Pittsburgh, however, Bell battled injury; in addition to his anemic slashline, he hit only five home runs in 44 games. The Pirates won 62 games that season and finished 31 games behind the Houston Astros. That would have been the worst finish in baseball but for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, in their fourth year of existence, who finished with the same record but 34 games behind the New York Yankees. (The Texas Rangers finished 43 games behind the historic, 116-win Seattle Mariners, but they had a better record.) So it was not a good year, and it wound up being Bell's last as a major leaguer.
With the 2001 season over, Bonifay was out as GM. Littlefield inherited a 62-win team with leftfielder Brian Giles at the pinnacle of his career, Aramis Ramirez at third, and a bunch of guys who'd be better served on some other team's bench.
With the new stadium already old news and another bleak season in the books, Littlefield pulled no punches when he got to spring training and, since Bell was not one of his own signings, he was straight up:
"Derek Bell is certainly competing for playing time out there. At this point, he hasn't done a lot to show he deserves a lot of playing time. He just hasn't performed. Last year, he was injured. He looks healthy. We just have to see more production."
This is objectively, indisputably true. Derek Bell was injured and did not have a good season. Which is what made Bell's Operation Shutdown gambit so absurd, or, as Dvorchak put it, "unfathomable." The Pirates stunk and would likely continue stinking all the way to another cellar-dwelling season. Derek Bell stunk and the only way to see if he would continue stinking was to have him play it out in Bradenton that spring. Instead, a guy who had put together a few good seasons with the Astros but was otherwise actually not that good at all—his career OPS is 99, which includes seasons of 112, 126, 107, and 125—just told the front office to either start him or trade him. Sure thing, Derek. Just let me make some calls and find the guy who wants a surly, over-the-hill slugger who can't slug anymore and can't crack the starting lineup on a team that lost 100 games. Bell basically tried to bluff his way into the starting lineup, somehow unaware that he was even in jeopardy of losing his spot. Little did he know that his was a bluff Littlefield was itching to call.
His overplay became a national story, thanks in part to the catchy name, but also because it was happening to the Pirates. Bell, who had spent several springs living on a boat, was still due to be paid $4.5 million that season. It was a bad contract for a bad team, and as a fan of the New York Jets I can tell you, nothing sells papers like schadenfreude. The jokes wrote themselves; Bell, a dude literally living on a boat, was going to steal money. Finally, he was a pirate.
In the end, Bell gave Littlefield the cover he needed to move on from Bonifay's misfire. Even before he initiated Operation Shutdown, Dvorchak says the Pirates GM wanted to figure out a way "to eat the second-year salary on Bell's contract. The comments made it a lot easier for him to cut the cord."
Not two weeks later, Bell was gone. The Operation that began with a bang ended with a whimper, and Bell was released and quietly walked out of the clubhouse. He didn't have much to say on his way out: "Just tell them I got in my yacht and rode out into the sunset."