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Pitcher Rob Bell has overcome anxiety attacks that nearly derailed his career two years ago

The Baltimore Sun

FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- The sound of a bullpen phone ringing. That's all it took for pitcher Rob Bell's heart to pound, his palms to sweat, his body to shake.

One call from his team's dugout, and his baseball life felt as if it were ripping apart at the seams.

Bell's only victory in 2005, at least the kind that appears in a box score, came against the Orioles, the team that signed him to a minor league contract in November, invited him to spring training and has given him a chance to make the club as a long reliever. But he conquered a far more intimidating opponent: Rob Bell.

The one person he figured he could always count on.

The Tampa Bay Devil Rays placed Bell on the disabled list on May 14, 2005, for "personal and psychological reasons," an explanation that still irritates him. He began suffering severe anxiety attacks, and controlling his fastball became secondary to controlling himself.

"It never happened my entire life until '05," he said. "I'd go out and play catch, and I was great before the game. Everything was fine. Then, all of a sudden, the phone would ring in the bullpen, and I would just lose all feel for everything. I couldn't throw strikes, I couldn't get my thoughts right, I couldn't breathe. It was pretty debilitating."

Bell received counseling and was prescribed medications, including antidepressants, that made him feel lethargic. He finished the season at Triple-A Durham after clearing waivers in July and spent last season in the Cleveland Indians' organization, not returning to the majors, but also leaving the attacks behind.

"I just had to say to myself, 'I love playing this game. It's one of the greatest things that ever happened in my life,'" he said. "It was difficult, but once I was able to sort all those things out, I was able to move forward."

So why would a pitcher who once ranked as a top prospect, a third-round selection of the Atlanta Braves in the 1995 amateur draft, suddenly go through such torment?

'It was paralyzing'

"It was paralyzing to me," said Bell, 30, who tossed two scoreless innings against the Florida Marlins in Friday's exhibition game. "I did everything I could to get past it and try to be the healthiest athlete I could be. But I had a lot of balls in the air, trying to juggle a lot of different things, and athletically it just showed its face.

"You're trying to function with a fine motor skill on the field. Now you're poisoned with all these thoughts and the negativity. Off the field, it was translating to me being depressed. I wasn't myself. I used to be a gregarious person, but I became more reclusive. I think that might have been dealing with some of the embarrassment I felt."

There was a breakup with a longtime girlfriend, an uneasy relationship with then-Devil Rays manager Lou Piniella, insecurities over his standing in the organization and the daily grind of pitching for a bad team with little fan support. The combination was toxic.

"I felt like, even though I signed a guaranteed contract, my spot wasn't guaranteed," he said. "I put a ton of pressure on myself. A lot of it was self-inflicted.

"I started experiencing it in April, and all these things were building on me. All that season, it's something you just try to find a way to get through -- maybe by having success and getting your feet more firmly under you. It's a lot of internal things, just enjoying things and not feeling like the weight of the world was on my shoulders every time I touched a baseball."

The healing truly began once the Devil Rays designated him for assignment. Sometimes, touching rock bottom allows a person to steady himself.

"Once I got designated, I kind of relaxed," Bell said. "I was like, 'Well, it can only get better from here.' I think that's when things really started to improve.

"All through last year, the issue really dissolved, to the point where I felt comfortable in my skin."

Bell defeated the Orioles in his second start of 2005, allowing four earned runs in six innings. After agreeing to pitch again on three days' rest, he surrendered 10 runs in 1 1/3 innings at Yankee Stadium. The next morning, Piniella removed Bell from the rotation.

"Playing for Lou was pretty stressful," Bell said.

Five relief appearances followed, leaving Bell at 1-1 with an 8.28 ERA and 41 hits allowed in 25 innings, before the Devil Rays put him on the disabled list.

"They characterized it as personal psychological disorders, which annoyed me," he said. "I was disappointed that they colored it that way."

"It was strange," said former Tampa Bay closer Danys Baez, who has been reunited with Bell in Orioles camp. "It was really difficult for him to be in a game and throw strikes. You don't know what kind of things were happening behind it. Maybe he was having personal problems in his life that he doesn't want to tell anybody."

Unusual case

This was relatively new ground for a sport that's more comfortable dealing with broken bones than broken spirits. There were no X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging tests to explain Bell's problems.

"It was an interesting journey through the rules of Major League Baseball to figure out a way to put him in a position where he could get the help he needed," said Scott Proefrock, who spent 10 1/2 seasons in Tampa Bay's front office before becoming the Orioles' director of baseball administration. "He was out of options, so we wanted to find a way to keep him. And there's always an argument whether you can send out a hurt player. This was a nebulous, undefined area of the rules."

The Devil Rays sent Bell to Durham on a rehabilitation assignment on June 10, and he cleared waivers the next month.

"Everybody in baseball knew, from reading the newspapers, what was going on, that there were psychological issues," Proefrock said.

Tampa Bay's home bullpen is located along the right-field foul line, and Bell's control became so erratic that umpires often would have to stop play to retrieve a ball that sailed past the catcher warming him up. That was the most noticeable sign for Proefrock and the biggest contrast to the pitcher he sees in Fort Lauderdale.

Back on track

"There's absolutely no physical evidence of it anymore," Proefrock said.

Said Baez: "I saw him throw the other day, and he was good. He was throwing strikes. He was really focused on the game. And that's the only thing he needs."

Bell went on the Devil Rays' disabled list about the same time they put Dewon Brazelton, a former first-round pick, on the restricted list after he refused to report to Triple-A and they couldn't locate him for a brief time.

"A lot of us were losing our minds," said Aubrey Huff, who played for the Devil Rays for seven years before signing with the Orioles as a free agent. "You spend enough years there in Tampa, you'll have some head issues."

Bell tired of discussing his own with professionals.

"I started feeling a little bit uncomfortable, because I had to talk and talk about it with psychologists and psychiatrists, and I thought the more I talked about it, the more the monster lives," he said. "I thought if I put it behind me, the better off I was going to be. I really wanted to look inside myself and find out what was going on, instead of having to throw everything out there."

The only throwing Bell is doing these days has placed him, according to one Orioles official, among the "front-runners" to win a relief job.

"I need people to believe in me," Bell said. "Sometimes it's tough to really convey through your arm or athletically what's in your heart, how hard you prepared, how willing you've been to get beyond all the tough times you went through."

roch.kubatko@baltsun.com

ORIOLES 6, METS 3

Hitting star

Third baseman Melvin Mora went 2-for-3 with four RBIs, including a bases-clearing double in his team's five-run third inning, as the Orioles downed the New York Mets, 6-3, yesterday at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. Shortstop Miguel Tejada and outfielder Val Majewski got the other RBIs for the Orioles (3-1).

Millar struggling

Orioles first baseman Kevin Millar continued his slow start, going 0-for-3 with two foulouts and an infield popout. He is 0-for-7.

Gibbons still untested

Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo started Jay Gibbons in left field, hoping to see how the former right fielder handled the position. However, aside from a few hits that Gibbons had to field, no fly balls were hit in his direction. Gibbons has played in three games - one at first base, one at designated hitter and one in left - and has yet to see a fly ball or an infield ground ball hit in his direction

On deck

The Orioles host the Florida Marlins today, the third time in five days that the teams have met. Orioles left-hander Adam Loewen will make his spring debut opposite Marlins left-hander Chris George. Jeremy Guthrie, Brian Burres, Todd Williams and Danys Baez also are expected to pitch for the Orioles.

Jeff Zrebiec

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