Almost three months later a ripple of grief, a current of shock, still catches him. Rob Refsnyder will be warming up before a game and pass Mike Bell's No. 36 jersey hanging in the Twins dugout. Just that image will break his routine, forcing him to pause and remember.
"He's not here anymore," Refsnyder will realize again and again. "It hits you at unexpected times."
Bell, the Twins bench coach, died March 26 from kidney cancer at 46 years old, only three months from his diagnosis. His brother, David, manages the Cincinnati Reds, who are at Target Field for a two-game series starting Monday.
The Twins began the regular season not even a week after Mike Bell's death, without the man who had already made an enduring impact on the team he had only known for a year.
While it's been six months since Bell shared his illness, which resulted in a February surgery to remove a kidney and parts of his liver, those who knew him are still reeling. A 162-game season doesn't leave much time for processing emotions, though in some ways it has been a comforting distraction from an overwhelming reality.
"It almost doesn't seem real, that it played out the way that it did," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. "There was a period of time where it almost felt like you couldn't keep up with what was happening, that your mind couldn't keep up with understanding how it was playing out because it played out very, very, very fast. You almost don't have time to really even comprehend what's happening."
That has left Baldelli and others hoping they had said everything they had wanted to say, told Bell exactly what he meant to them before the opportunity was gone forever. Refsnyder keeps thinking back to the offseason, how he and Bell were supposed to meet for coffee only for Bell to keep pushing it off because he didn't feel well.
“What got him excited was talking about the team, talking about baseball, talking about the Twins and the players and everything that we do. He loved all sides of this. He didn't just love being in the dugout for the game. That's just a small part of it.”
Refsnyder signed a minor league contract with the Twins in late 2020 because of Bell, whom he first knew as the Arizona Diamondbacks vice president of player development. Bell won Refsnyder's respect and loyalty in the 2019 season when the journeyman found himself struggling for playing time with Arizona's Class AAA team. He was traded to Cincinnati and played for Class AAA Louisville.
"He went out of his way to make an opportunity come up with the Reds affiliate," Refsnyder said. "You really don't see those moments where people take time out of their career and professional lives to make other guys' situations better all the time. It's a very cutthroat business. There's a bottom line. And for him to do that for me, I was always, forever, like, 'Wow.' It's a super powerful thing."
Putting others first
Mike Hazen worked with Bell from 2016-19 as Diamondbacks general manager. He regularly observed how Bell assumed the role of dad to 200 minor league players, helping the recent high school grads transition into adult life, giving relationships and family advice to others. He never brushed a player's concern off or delegated it to someone else on staff, but dealt with everything personally, Hazen said.
Despite baseball being so results-oriented, Bell had a unique way of separating on-field performance from the off-field person. And while he could be tough, he was never intimidating.
"Mike was a great human being, and I think that just came forward with everybody that he met," Hazen said. "He really was a special guy, and I think the players all saw that. He built that trust very quickly."
Bell came from a family pretty close to baseball royalty. His grandfather, Gus, played 15 years in the majors. His father, Buddy, had a long big league career and also managed Detroit, Colorado and Kansas City. And David, 48, has managed the Reds the past three seasons.
David Bell will always be proud of his brother's baseball journey, how he went from a first-round draft pick in 1993 to grinding for eight years in the minors to finally debuting with his hometown Reds in 2000. And Mike's transition from the front office to the dugout was just the first step to him becoming a major league manager one day.
"He put himself through online college after he was done playing, became a vice president of a major league organization, ran an entire player development department. While he was there, created this amazing culture," David Bell said. "Personally, he had an amazing family, had a lot of really good friends. … What is so special about Mike, and why he was so loved, was that even though he had all those personal accomplishments, individual successes were never what drove him.
"Other people were just more important to him than anything he did for himself."
Mike Bell spent his final days at home in Arizona, surrounded by those he held so close, including his wife, Kelly, and their three children, Luke, Mikayla and Madeline. Family had always been huge to Bell, a bond first forged with his parents and four siblings while navigating the twists and demands of MLB life.
David Bell said the news of his brother's diagnosis stunned the whole family; one of his four siblings, Kristi McConnell, lives in Edina. But even knowing the severity of the situation, David Bell said "there was always hope until the end."
There was also baseball.
Heart in the game
Mike Bell missed all of spring training while treating his cancer, but he never really stopped working. He would watch the Twins spring training games or livestream their practices and scrimmages in his hospital room.
"For only being with the Twins for one year, it just meant so much to him. A lot of the players, a lot of the staff. The entire Twins organization was incredible with just the love they were showing, and that was really meaningful to him," David Bell said. "He was talking about baseball, basically the last time I saw him where we were able to have a conversation. We talked about their team."
Baldelli's last conversation with Mike Bell was similar. On a drive back from some Florida spring training game in Sarasota or Bradenton, Baldelli called up Bell and was encouraged by how strong he sounded.
"We were talking about the roster, and I wanted to hear his thoughts," Baldelli said. "We got into a lot of stuff. We actually went through the staff, we were talking about the bullpen, we were talking about all kinds of things. And it was great."
One of Bell's most ardent points from that conversation was to bat Luis Arraez leadoff, which he has done 31 times this season.
"I'm still listening to him right now," Baldelli said. "But I'll tell you this: What got him excited was talking about the team, talking about baseball, talking about the Twins and the players and everything that we do. He loved all sides of this. He didn't just love being in the dugout for the game. That's just a small part of it."
His energy made coming to work fun, first base coach Tommy Watkins said, holding back tears while remembering his friend and mentor. But Watkins also laughed at some memories, like about Bell's lululemon hookup. Bell had somehow worked out a discount to the trendy athletic apparel store — part of his chic sporty dad fashion he touted — and would frequently offer up his credit card for the players and staff to place bulk orders.
One game, after a staff member had just spent a significant amount of time inputting each individual order, Bell's credit card wouldn't go through because of a wrong verification code. So frustrated at having to re-add everything to the cart, the staff member marched out to the dugout midgame and asked Bell for the correct number. To any fans watching on TV, it probably looked like a serious strategic meeting.
When that order came in, there was one more joke, as Watkins had arranged for a very short pair of shorts to appear under Bell's name. Bell likely appreciated the prank, as his snarky sense of humor often alleviated tension during tough parts of the season. He and Baldelli were quite the comedic duo, with Bell setting up Baldelli for a devastating punchline, usually at Watkins' expense.
The Twins' series with David Bell and the Reds gives the two teams a chance to honor Mike Bell's legacy with a tribute during the Twins' Cancer Awareness Night on Monday. It'll undoubtedly send out another wave of heartache.
If Mike Bell were there, he would know just what to say to comfort his family and friends.
"He would be there for other people until he didn't feel like his services were needed anymore, and whoever he was talking to was able to let it all out," Baldelli said. "But he always found a way to encourage, too. He'd listen and then he had a great way of spinning things.
"He always had a way of making you feel ready to go and ready to get back to the field.