LAKELAND, Fla. - Buddy Bell could have skipped spring training. He could have left the Detroit Tigers to their own devices, and concentrated on managing more important matters.
He considered abandoning baseball temporarily to be with his wife, Gloria, during her radiation treatment for tonsil cancer. But he decided that he was of more help commuting to Cincinnati than hovering there.
''I think it's therapeutic for me and therapeutic for Gloria as well,'' Bell said. ''She had to deal with me all winter. She didn't want to have to deal with me all spring. ... I'd probably be in the way.''
Bell laughed at his little joke, and the mood was momentarily lighter. He was sitting on a picnic table at Tiger Town, toying with a mechanical pencil and trying to make conversation with a crowd of people who didn't know what to say. He gave every evidence of being at ease.
Poker face hides feelings
Buddy Bell was a brilliant third baseman in his day, but perhaps his most striking quality is calm. Whatever the circumstances - an exhilarating victory or an excruciating defeat - he could always be found after a game with a cigarette in one hand, a beer in the other and an expression of sheer serenity. He was the first guy you looked to in a crisis, and the last guy you wanted to see across a poker table. He was a grown-up in a game for boys.
This maturity enabled Bell to endure a severe test last season. The Tigers hit the incompetence trifecta, compiling the lowest hitting, pitching and fielding percentages in the American League. They lost 109 games in the process.
Writers who travel with the Tigers recalled Bell blowing his composure only once, after he suspected his players had quit against Cleveland. Considering the quality of the club he commanded, Bell's stoicism was worthy of Sir Thomas More.
''Body language-wise, I wasn't too reactive,'' he said. ''But in my head and my heart I need to calm down a little bit, probably.''
He is the same way about his wife. The Bells were about to celebrate their 26th anniversary when the doctors discovered her cancer. Two weeks later, he is back to work with an outward tranquility masking his pain.
''Buddy doesn't show his emotions too much,'' said Reds coach Ron Oester, who served on Bell's staff last season in Detroit. ''But he was in pretty bad shape when it first happened. He was just stunned that anything like that could happen. Gloria didn't smoke or drink or anything. He's a lot better now.''
Baseball good diversion
Bell has been encouraged by the prognosis, which indicates an 85 percent chance for a full recovery. Gloria Bell is scheduled for seven weeks of radiation treatment at University Hospital, with five sessions per week.
''You never get the odds you want,'' Buddy Bell said, ''but they've given us some pretty good ones. I'm optimistic. I feel pretty good about everything working out. I'm going to look at it that way, and I know Gloria does. But it's nice to have this (baseball) to look at and think about and kind of get that other thing out of my mind.''
Bell's plan is to remain with the Tigers through their first few exhibition games, and return to Cincinnati for a day or two about every 10 days. Tigers General Manager Randy Smith says Bell is free to set his schedule. Detroit coach Larry Parrish will manage the team in Bell's absence.
''If you have to convince somebody that your family comes first, you're going to have trouble,'' Bell said. ''I've always had a good perspective on what's important and what is not, but I think there are things that happen in your life that kind of make you step back a couple of feet and look at things a little bit clearer.''
Buddy Bell could have chosen an extended leave, but he determined that his wife is more self-sufficient than his ballclub. What he starts, she finishes.
''She's doing great,'' he said. ''You don't quite understand how strong people are until stuff like this happens. Gosh, she's doing better than all of us.''