PORT CHARLOTTE — Heath Bell is like many of the other pitchers new to the Rays this spring, seeking improvements to his game, additions, adjustments.
But as is often the case in these situations, Bell is also looking for something much bigger:
"I'm just trying to be me," Bell said. "But not trying to be me too much."
The search is actually more of a recovery mission. Bell, 36, is trying to regain a reputation that was tarnished significantly over the past two seasons — a toxic stint with the Marlins that played out infamously on cable television, followed by a frustrating and uncomfortable stay with the Diamondbacks, leading to a December trade to Tampa Bay.
"The last couple of years (I've) changed from a big kid, a fun-loving guy that's a bulldog on the mound to a complainer, and hopefully I can change it back," Bell said. "I feel like if I go pitch well, that will help a lot of things."
Bell would seem positioned well to rebound. He already is relishing the Rays' relaxed, no-rules environment and excited by their strong history in straightening out veteran relievers.
"I feel like this is a great place to be," he said. "I haven't been told not to do anything."
But it's not that simple.
And with Bell it rarely seems to be.
There is a level of conflict in him that is readily apparent, a desire to explain the struggles of the past two seasons — including some mysterious "personal problems" — yet also a reluctance to do that, thinking it would make his situation worse.
"I'm trying not to say anything too negative because I don't want it to be, 'He keeps blaming (cable TV network) Showtime or blaming this guy or blaming that, and not taking responsibility,' " Bell said. "I'm trying to take responsibility. But if I'm trying to explain things, it's kind of hard. I'm trying to explain what kind of happened, but it comes off as me complaining about everybody else. So if I don't talk about it, I feel like I'm taking responsibility, but I don't think people see it that way."
After leading the majors in saves for the Padres over 2009-11, Bell cashed in with a three-year, $27 million free-agent contract from the stocking-up Marlins.
But the smiles went away quickly as he pitched poorly, eventually losing his closer's job, and clashed badly with then-manager Ozzie Guillen. A tense, usually private office meeting with Guillen was captured by Showtime's cameras for an episode of its reality series about the Marlins, The Franchise. Ripples spread through the clubhouse.
Bell welcomed change, but a trade to Arizona wasn't a good match of his free-spirited ways and manager Kirk Gibson's no-nonsense style. And it was more than just a bad omen when Bell gave up a long homer on his first pitch of last season. It was the start of another long year with little fun.
The fall from being a guy who made three straight All-Star Game appearances, converted 90.4 percent of his save chances and posted a 2.36 ERA in San Diego to being a guy with a 69 percent conversion rate and a 4.59 ERA the next two seasons would seem to be a compelling narrative.
Bell said Guillen "made some mistakes" with the Marlins that "hurt the team." He danced around describing what seemed a prickly relationship with Gibson. But in nearly an hour of conversation over two days, he couldn't get past what he said is significant internal conflict.
"Exactly," he said. "If I try to open up about the Marlins thing or last year, then I feel like it portrays me as a big whiner and complainer. That's not what I'm doing, so I'm trying to not say anything. But if I don't say anything, it's like I don't care."
Similarly, he referred repeatedly to "personal problems" that began after he signed with Miami and that "tilted over and poured into my baseball," but he wouldn't reveal their causes or concerns.
He engaged a reporter in eliminating some possibilities: It "wasn't alcohol, it wasn't abuse … it wasn't anything like therapy or AA."
He did say the problems were "a family issue," noting that he has a wife and four kids (including a 12-year-old daughter with Down syndrome); that his father, to whom he was close, died during last season (and, per his dad's wishes, he didn't attend the memorial service); and that he has a large extended family, which includes TV star Drake Bell and pro basketball player Erik Meek.
But he offered no specifics.
"I like trying to be open and honest, but if I said certain things, it would hurt certain people," Bell said. "It's still a sensitive subject to some people."
Bell believes that the fresh start with the Rays will be redemptive and that he can return to his past success (though in a setup role) and his fun-loving ways. In San Diego he had an adjacent locker filled with remote-control helicopters and tanks, Frisbees and other toys, plus a Segway he bought off Craigslist.
It's obvious Bell wants to be liked and he enjoys being the center of attention, if not the clubhouse clown. He plans to step slowly as a Ray, figuring — smartly — that a good start on the mound is the best intro.
He already is one of the leading clubhouse conversationalists and has shown his sense of humor in a team meeting. When manager Joe Maddon shared his one strict rule, run hard to first base, Bell, with the blessing of David Price, raised his hand and asked if that applied to him when he makes his dash from the bullpen to the mound.
Maddon laughed at the time and has heaped praise on Bell thus far, raving about his professionalism and hard work, noting the good reviews he got from Padres manager Bud Black.
Bell said he'd like to keep it simple.
"Like I told my wife, I'm going to go out and perform great with the Rays, keeping doing what I'm doing, and hopefully the Tampa fans will fall in love with me," he said.
"If my persona goes that he's a great guy again, then great. If it stays the same, then great. Because the Tampa fans are going to know who I am just like the Diamondback fans know who I was."