Over the course of the first three years of their existence, the Blue Jays were lovable losers, losing over 100 games each season, but managing to draw almost 5 million fans. Unknown to most, however, the club was quickly stockpiling minor league talent, and gaining a reputation throughout baseball for their scouting. That reputation was enhanced when they plucked one of the best players ever chosen in the Rule 5 draft, an outfielder from the Phillies system named George Bell.
While their expansion cousins Seattle Mariners were loading up on fringe veterans to post a respectable record for an expansion team in 1977, the Blue Jays chose more young players with potential who were playing in the lower levels of the minors. They were also scouring the US and the Caribbean for players at any level, including heavy scouting of other MLB teams' minor leaguers. According to Kevin Kerrane in the epic Dollar Sign on the Muscle, "their staff was considered the most aggressive in the business."
The Rule 5 draft pre-dates the Rule 4 draft, which is the well-known lottery of high school and college players baseball holds every June. The Rule 5 dates back to bonus baby days, when teams would outbid each other for premium high school prospects, and then some organizations would stockpile those picks in the minors for years. To lessen that problem, MLB instituted the Bonus Rule in the late 1940s, forcing teams which signed a player for a bonus of over $4000 to keep that player on the major league roster for at least two seasons, or expose him to waivers if they failed to comply. The most famous player to be claimed from that era was Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente, who the Pirates claimed from the Dodgers in 1954. The Bonus rule ended with the advent of the Major League draft in 1965.
When an organization signs a player at the age of 18 or under, they have five years until they have to place the player on the team's 40 man roster. If drafted at the age of 19 or older, a team has four years to do so.
When a player reaches their expiry date and isn't placed on their team's 40 man, they are eligible to be drafted by any MLB teams in the November Rule 5 draft. To prevent the draft from becoming a free-for-all raiding of some teams' minor league talent, each draftee costs $50 000, and must be kept on the 25 man major league roster for the whole season. If the drafting team opts not to keep the player, they must offer him back to the original team for half that amount.
Bell was signed by the Phillies (who were considering the leading MLB organization in terms of scouting in the 1970s) out of San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic in 1978. The 19 year old Bell was sent to Helena of the Rookie Level Pioneer League in 1979, where he hit .311/.373/.387. Promoted to Low A Spartanburg the next year, Bell took off, hitting 22 Home Runs and driving in 102, while posting a line of .305/..345/.550.
The word was probably starting to get out about Bell after that season, and the Blue Jays were no doubt among the first to know about him. Promoted to AA the next season, Bell was off to a hot start, but suffered a stress fracture of his right shoulder at the end of April, and was out until July. In his first game back, he re-injured the shoulder in a home-plate collision, and his season was over.
Under the Rule 5 guidelines of that time, the Phillies had to place Bell on their 40-man roster prior to the November 1980 edition of the draft, or risk losing him. They sent him back to the Dominican, and let him work out with Escogido, a local team the Phils had an informal working agreement with.
The club had to keep Bell on the roster for the whole year, of course, and he played only a minor role, managing only 168 plate appearances in 1981, putting up modest .233/.256/.350 numbers. The Jays were were still far from being a contender in those days of four-man (at the most) bullpens, so keeping the youngster was not a burden on the roster. After that season, Bell was optioned to AAA, but the Jays' brain trust saw him as the final piece of a potential all-star outfield, along with a skinny outfielder they drafted in the middle rounds in 1977, and a former high school basketballer who they took with the 2nd overall pick the following year.
The plan was likely to re-unite Bell with Jesse Barfield and Lloyd Moseby sometime in 1982, but a Lynn McGlothlen fastball to Bell's jaw limited Bell to 37 minor league games that year, and understandably left him with a low tolerance of pitchers who tried to jam him that would crop up throughout the rest of his career, most notably when Red Sox pitcher Bruce Kison came in too close for Bell's liking in 1985, which led to Bell charging the mound and karate-kicking Kison.
Fully recovered by 1983, Bell was recalled midway through the season, and with Moseby and Barfield, formed what many considered the best young outfield in baseball. Bell broke through in 1984, hitting .292/.326/.498, as the Blue Jays themselves broke through from perennial losers to contenders. Then there was Bell's monster year of 1987, when he set a club record with 47 Home Runs and 134 RBI, and became the first Toronto player to capture the AL MVP award.
1987 represented Bell's peak, and his numbers began to fall off afterward. Never a great defensive player, Bell feuded with Manager Jimy Williams when he was moved to full time DH in 1988. Perhaps still fuming after learning of this switch mid-way through spring training, Bell hit 3 Home Runs on Opening Day, the only player in major league history to do so. Bell also hit the last home run (a walk off) at Exhibition Stadium. His relationship with Toronto fans soured toward the end of his time in the city, and Bell finished his career with the Cubs and the White Sox, retiring in 1993. Bell and the Blue Jays patched things up, however, and he was named to the club's Level of Excellence in 1996. He is a guest instructor at spring training for the club now.
Bell was not the only gem the Jays plucked from the Rule 5 draft. Shortstop Manny Lee, taken from the Astros in 1984, took over the position when starter Tony Fernandez was dealt to the Padres, and played for the 92 World Series champs.
Next to Johan Santana and Josh Hamilton, Bell was one of the best Rule 5 picks of all time.