PITTSBURGH – Josh Bell wanted to make a statement with his actions, a way to channel the disgust the Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman felt in the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police in late May.
Yet as the crowds surged in downtown Pittsburgh last month during a planned peaceful protest, he fought the urge to join in.
He couldn't help but notice the helicopters buzzing. He checked the Internet and saw what began with a positive vibe had shifted to something darker. Wary of the optics and the fallout, Bell, who is Black, heeded the advice of his girlfriend.
“(She told me) ‘You’re going to make a lot more impact with your platform than going to this riot right now. That’s how people get hurt. That’s where the conversation turns bad," Bell said on Saturday. “'Josh Bell is at a protest is a good thing. But Josh Bell is at a riot is a terrible thing. That’s something that could change your career in a heartbeat.’”
And not the kind of change the 27-year-old All-Star from Texas wants to impart. He watched what happened to former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2017 when he chose to kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality. Kaepernick's message got lost amid outcry over the method he chose to express it. It's something Bell wants desperately to avoid.
“In regards to where he wanted to conversation to go, that got shut down pretty much from the get go and his career was forever changed from that,” Bell said. “So that was where a lot of players felt silenced. A lot of players were like, ‘Well, shoot.’”
This time things feel different. There is a groundswell of support across races and ages. And Bell is intent on being a part of it. Reticent by nature, Bell is growing more comfortable in his role as the face of a franchise whose history is filled with players of color that made a difference far beyond the field.
Roberto Clemente. Willie Stargell. Andrew McCutchen. Now, Bell believes it's his turn.
“I feel like social justice is something that a lot of people are learning right now,” Bell said. “For the most part, I’m trying to stay as politically correct as I can. I’m not trying to bring emotions into anything. You guys know me by now. I’m not trying to be the guy who has the headline for something negative. I’m doing my best to try to learn. That support from the Pirates has really allowed me to express my opinions.”
His deeds, too. Bell started a book club with his teammates with the belief of opening a clear and honest dialogue. The titles so far have included “The New Jim Crow” and the fantasy novel “The Alchemist."
“It’s kind of like who I am as well as books that I feel like everybody should read so everybody can be on the same page in regards to not only understanding what social justice looks like, but understanding what being a good human being looks like,” Bell said. “I feel like if I promote that message, it’s not going to be going up into a conversation like this, like one side or the other, like you’re either right or you’re wrong. We’re all in this thing together."
He's also started sharing Instagram posts as part of a movement called “Social Reform Sunday.” The goal is to help educate himself and others on various topics, not all of them centering on race relations. He promoted the 2016 prison documentary “13th” last week and linked to the Equal Justice Initiative last month. He conducted a Zoom call with members of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Reviving Baseball in Inner-Cities program.
“That has allowed an opportunity for the pain that I felt watching that video, that feeling where I felt like a lot of voices weren’t being heard (to ease),” Bell said.
Pitcher Trevor Williams, who is white, reached out to Bell in the aftermath of Floyd's death. What followed was a vulnerable chat between teammates that ended with Williams agreeing to join the book club.
“It’s opening eyes,” Williams said. “It’s giving me perspectives that I didn’t think I was going to need until this happened. It’s almost a second awakening for us, a great racial awakening to take positive steps forward.”
Steps that could reach far longer-lasting effects than anything that happens on the field in 2020 for the Pirates, for both Bell personally and the franchise and city as a whole.
“For him to say this and to speak out against it and be educated and say some things that doesn’t toe the line but gets in the face of, ‘This is a problem, we need to address it,’ I’m really proud of him for accepting that responsibility,” Williams said.
Bell's growing comfort with his influence on issues that have nothing to do with baseball is one of many reasons he has evolved into a clubhouse leader for a team in the process of reinventing itself following a massive leadership overhaul during the offseason.
In a way, Bell's focused, intentional approach to outreach has given him peace of mind when he arrived at PNC Park this week to begin spring training 2.0. He isn't just sitting with his discomfort and anger, he's using it in a productive way. It's made going to work far easier than it might have been if he'd just silently seethed.
“I've got a smile on my face coming to the field every day knowing when the time is right I can get back into the community and do what I can to promote good in this world," he said. “I’m excited about that.”
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