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Once Pittsburgh's future, they closed its past together

There might as well have been a sign on the door of the Pirates locker room last season: Will the last two guys out of Pittsburgh take the pennant with them?

They would be shortstop Jay Bell and first baseman Jeff King, continuing a decadelong odyssey. The latest stop: Kansas City. They met in the minors more than a decade ago, played together in Pittsburgh for eight seasons and were traded together to the Royals in December.

"There's two different parts to playing baseball," Bell said. "The game, you can play it anywhere: Pittsburgh, Kansas City, St. Pete, the game's the same. So where you are is no big deal. You still enjoy the fact you're competing.

"But what I'll miss about Pittsburgh was the relationships I'd built over the years with fans, with people in the front office, with some of the players. That's the difficult part of leaving."

No matter. Bell and King have each other. On and off the field they are all but welded at the hip. Their lockers are side by side. So are they, on the bench before and during games, on the field in batting practice. They play catch in warmups. On the road, they lean toward Nintendo and room service.

"And when we're through talking, we can just hang out together and not have to talk," Bell said.

It goes deeper. "Our kids are best friends," Bell said. "It's made the move (to a new team) easier all around for all of us." Jay and Laura's two little Bells are Brianna, 5, and Brantley, 2; Jeff and Laura's four little Kings (yes, the wives have the same first name) are Audrey, 7; Jeffrey, 6; Cody, 5; and Hannah, 1.

"When Laura told Brianna I'd been traded and we were leaving Pittsburgh, she started crying," Bell said. "We were leaving her best friends. Then Laura told her Jeff had been traded, too, and they were coming along with us. She immediately stopped crying and asked what the color of our new uniforms was."

What Royals manager Bob Boone sees in them is "two professional bats when I need them. People are looking at Jeff's 30 home runs and Jay's 13 and so on. Well, we've been last in home runs for a couple of years, but we've got a big ballpark. We're always going to be down on the home run side. What I need is quality at-bats when I've got people on base. That's where they'll help." Last year Bell and King combined for 182 runs batted in.

They were playing in the Florida Instructional League in 1986, Bell in the Cleveland organization, King in Pittsburgh's, when they were introduced by Doyle Wilson, who had gone to the University of Arkansas with King and had become Bell's minor-league teammate. Bell played parts of three seasons with Cleveland before a 1989 trade reunited them, first at Triple-A Buffalo, then with the Pirates, "and we've been together ever since," King said.

"It seemed apparent we'd be traded after last year. It didn't cross my mind that there'd be a chance we'd go together. I was gone all day when it happened. When I came home my wife was all excited. She told me how the Lord worked everything out real well."

The Dec. 13 deal made them the final two high-priced players purged in 1996, a year in which the Pirates became the National League franchise least likely to succeed for the rest of the century.

"In the short term, they're surrendering," Bell said. "Realistically, they don't have much of a chance to do a lot of good things because there are very few veterans and it's extremely difficult for a lot of your players to compete on the major-league level.

"I think what Cam (Bonifay, Pirates general manager) was doing came on orders from Kevin (McClatchy, team owner). He had to cut salaries. He did that." About $5-million of those salaries were Bell's and King's. In all, the departures of Denny Neagle, Danny Darwin, Charlie Hayes, Dave Clark, Orlando Merced, Carlos Garcia, Dan Plesac, Bell and King knocked more than $16-million off their payroll for this season and brought in a bunch of inexpensive players.

What was particularly troubling to Bell was that as late as June 23, the Pirates were as little as 1{ games out of first place in the NL Central. "We weren't far off from being a pretty good team," Bell said, "and nothing was going to be done about it to strengthen the club, to even keep it together. At that point we needed a bat in the middle of the lineup and Kevin was not going to go out of his way to get it.

"He was going to make sure he at least had a moneymaker and to try and get a young team for the future."

King shook his head. "Right," he said sarcastically. "Out of all those players they got, maybe a few of them are going to develop into good major-leaguers in three or four years _ and the ballclub's going to be in the same position. They're going to have to pay those guys or unload them, too."

Jeff King

Pos. 1B Born: Dec. 26, 1964, Marion, Ind. Bats: R Throws: R

G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO

Career 894 3,161 419 817 173 16 99 493 296 405

SB BA

47 .258

'96 155 591 x91 160 x36 x4 x30 x111 x70 95

(Pitt.) SB BA

x15 .271

x = career highs

Notes: Led NL with three grand slams; hit two home runs in one inning at San Francisco in 1995 and at Cincinnati last season; No. 1 pick overall in 1986 amateur draft after three seasons at University of Arkansas.

Jay Bell

Pos. SS Born: Dec. 11, 1965, Eglin AFB Bats: R Throws: R

G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB BA

Career 1,222 4,529 663 1,202 249 46 83 461 457 867 64 .265

'96 151 527 65 132 29 3 13 x71 54 108 6 .250

(Pitt)

Notes: Led major-league shortstops in 1996 with .986 fielding percentage and 478 assists. Won Gold Glove in 1993, ending Ozzie Smith's 13-year streak. In 1986 with Cleveland, became 11th player to hit first major-league pitch thrown to him for a homer (off Minnesota's Bert Blyleven).

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