Three years ago today, my friend Jeff Bell lost a short battle with cancer. I don’t recall if it was Hodgkin’s or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but that really doesn’t matter. What is important today is that he is remembered for the great person he was.
Jeff was both an opponent and a teammate of mine in the sport of fastpitch softball. Before I really got to know him personally, I just didn’t like him much on the playing field. He was a competitor at all costs, and although he didn’t sport the proto-typical ball players’ “look,” he always seemed to get a clutch hit when it mattered most. He was just one of those guys you hated to play against, and wished he was on your team.
Later in our careers, my life travels brought me to central Illinois and we became teammates. I told him at the time I just wasn’t a fan of his when he sat in the other dugout. I still remember his reaction as vividly as if it was yesterday. He simply told me “I love that! I love that you didn’t like me.”
That was Jeff, always competing whether it was by getting the big hit, or just getting under your skin enough to affect your focus on the task at hand. Both were effective.
The last time we spent any significant time together was at the 2005 International Softball Congress World Fastpitch Championship in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. It was in August, and we traveled (and lodged) in our uncle Larry’s motor home (okay, Larry is Jeff’s uncle by blood, but he’s my uncle by way of our long-term friendship). We spent three days watching games and catching up with old friends, and it was just an enjoyable time at the ballpark. Neither of us knew that the next spring his illness would be diagnosed.
If you’ve read this far, it’s possible you knew of Jeff, yet didn’t realize that was his first name. He was known throughout softball circles as Bubba, as in Jeff “Bubba” Bell. When we walked around the park at the ISC tournament, everybody knew Bubba. He had left his mark on the game as a player, and was now enjoying the next generation of teams and ballplayers in a spectator’s role.
I was fortunate enough to speak on Bubba’s behalf when he was inducted posthumously into the Illinois Softball Hall of Fame. As I noted at the time, Bubba had achieved a level of notoriety that is mostly associated with the sport of soccer. When someone mentioned Bubba at a fastpitch softball game, there was no mistaking who they were referring to. One name was enough, like mentioning Pele or Maradona.
I don’t have at my immediate disposal a list of all his accolades as a player. I know he was an All-American in the 1993 ASA Men’s National Tournament. I know he was MVP of several other tournaments, perhaps at the Regional level. I do recall reading a post on a softball bulletin board by Pete Porcelli, the former sponsor and manager of the Tampa Bay Smokers team that won a couple national championships and were always a formidable foe. Pete wrote this shortly after learning of Bubba’s passing:
“Part of me was envious of the gift he had for hitting in spite of his physical limitations in other respects. Part of me just did not want to get beat by a team we were favored over. Part of me wanted to enjoy his hitting as long as we had enough of a lead I could, in fact enjoy him hit against my pitching. I liked him very much. I admired his spirit of competition. I enjoyed talking with him at tourneys, he was a smart cookie. And I loved the fact he knew I paid particular attention to him, and he always tried his very best to see his team beat us. I think he wanted to beat me, partially for making it such a big deal to follow him and beat his team.”
In this, you have a pretty good summation of what Bubba was all about. He wanted to beat you, but he wanted to have a beer and talk to you when the game was over. Perhaps that is the beauty of the game of fastpitch softball, a sport that has been dying a slow death for 25 years or more. The sport itself is built on competition and camaraderie, two words that don’t often get used in the same sentence. Bubba epitomized both to the greatest extent of their definition.
It’s a rare thing these days for athletes to set aside their machismo and reveal their sentimental side. But in this case, it’s easy for me to say I loved Bubba. He was a wonderful friend, and although I think of him often, I especially miss him today.
Photo: Jeff “Bubba” Bell outside the Norske Nook in Osseo, Wisconsin on our way to the 2005 ISC World Tournament in Eau Claire. I had insisted we stop at this restaurant (I’d eaten there a few times during business trips) as they had an unbelievable assortment of homemade pies, and we had to make that part of our trip. As you can see, Bubba got a slice for the road as well. (Credit: Jeff Findley)