PHOENIX — He has basked on World Series floats, waving to fans with confetti falling on his head, has three World Series rings, and still has autograph seekers leaving baseballs and bats for him and his wife at home and work.
It's been 17 years since Clay Bellinger last played in a baseball game, winning World Series championships with the New York Yankees in 1999 and 2000, and the Los Angeles Angels in 2002. But now at the age of 50, he’s more popular than he’s been in his entire life.
The only difference is that no one is asking about him anymore. Or what it’s like playing with Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Or being part of a Yankee dynasty.
Everyone wants to know about that 23-year-old kid who pulled up in a town car late Sunday night, going straight from the airport to Bellinger’s suburban Chandler, Ariz., home, and greeted exuberantly by their 7-year-old dog, Bella.
Cody Bellinger is batting .376 with .733 slugging percentage. (Photo: Gary A. Vasquez, USA TODAY Sports)
“It’s amazing all of the requests and everyone calling and texting,’’ Bellinger tells USA TODAY Sports. “It’s been non-stop this season.’’
That’s the fallout when your middle child just happens to be the greatest player in baseball this year, producing not only the greatest season in Los Angeles Dodgers’ history, but one of the finest in the history of the game.
He's Cody Bellinger.
And after all of the hopes and dreams Clay and his wife, Jennifer, had for their son, even with Cody declaring as a toddler that he'd be a major league player, they never could they have envisioned anything as wild as this season.
“I mean, how could you?’’ Jennifer said. “I remember joking with him in high school, telling him he should be a left-handed pitcher because they make it to the big leagues faster.
“Now, to see what he’s doing, and hearing his name being compared to the others, it’s humbling.’’
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No, we’re not talking about comparisons with Mike Trout, Mookie Betts or Christian Yelich.
He has achieved statistical comparisons to Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Duke Snider and Stan Musial.
When you’re leading all of baseball in virtually every statistical category, batting .376 with a .733 slugging percentage, 1.195 OPS and 154 total bases, to go along with 20 homers, 52 RBI and 50 runs, you tend to attract attention.
There has never been a Dodgers player who has had a season like this, whether in Los Angeles or Brooklyn. And we’re not even talking about the fact that he leads the majors in defensive runs saved (16) or his seven outfield assists, the most of any right fielder in baseball.
“Sometimes, I can’t even believe it,’’ Cody Bellinger says. “It’s been incredible.
“I didn’t expect it obviously, but I’m enjoying every second of it.’’
Is it too early to give Bellinger the National League MVP right now? He'd become the first Dodgers’ position player to win the award since Kirk Gibson in 1988.
The Dodgers are 42-19 entering Tuesday, and are in pursuit of their first championship since 1988.
Bellinger giggles at the thought of a ring, dreaming of someday earning bragging rights with his dad.
“He’s got three of those rings, and I’m always reminded of it,’’ Bellinger says. “We need to get one. And then keep going to pass him.
“Maybe, one of these days, right?’’
Clay Bellinger, who now works as a firefighter in Gilbert, Ariz., spent parts of four years in the major leagues and 16 years in the minors, but never came close to having his son’s career. He hit 12 homers and had 35 RBI in his career. Cody eclipsed those numbers by June 11, 2017 of his rookie season.
“I still think that rookie season was the most shocking to everyone, at least in my hometown here,’’ Cody Bellinger said. “I mean, it was insane. They couldn’t believe I was doing this.’’
Well, when you hit just one homer your senior season in high school, and 123 players are selected ahead of you in the 2013 draft, with the Dodgers picking guys like Chris Anderson, Tom Windle and Brandon Dixon before Bellinger, just making the big leagues is an achievement.
“I think every child has a dream, sometimes they say it loud,’’ Jennifer Bellinger says, “but he was always adamant he wanted to play professional baseball like his dad. He was probably 3 years old, watching TV when we were in Columbus, Ohio, and he said he was going to play baseball like Daddy.
“And he said he wanted to play for the Dodgers.
“I was shocked.’’
Well, two decades later, it’s Jennifer and the family now watching Cody, catching perhaps 40 games in person a season, and not missing a single game on TV, or at least on radio – whether Clay is at the fire station, Jennifer is working at the church in youth ministry, or they are all together.
Bellinger, who struck out 151 times with only 69 walks, including 54 times in 186 at-bats against lefties, wound up being platooned last season. He started only 16 games in September and October, benched every time the Dodgers faced a left-handed starter.
“When you go from where you are your rookie year, and then sitting on the bench,’’ Clay Bellinger said, “it was hard to watch. He obviously was upset with it, but just didn’t tell people. You can say you’re ok with it, but when you’re a competitor, you’re not.
“He came out this spring, and it was like, 'I’m going to prove to you that I’m an everyday player.’’
Bellinger focused on being more patient, homered the first game of the season. He drove in 13 runs alone the first week. He was hitting over .400 until two weeks ago. And he still has more walks than strikeouts.
Yep, Cody Bellinger may be sitting atop the baseball world, but he’s still the same kid who will eat ice cream cones in the clubhouse, chug milk after a game, and drop by his parents' house to do laundry.
They just don’t tell the neighbors when he’s stopping over.
“My son’s working, I’m not going to be bothering him with autographs and meet-and-greets,’’ Jennifer Bellinger says. “I used to show up for work with balls on my desks and sticky notes asking for autographs. I can’t do that. I don’t want to be fan-grilling my son.’’
Really, with Bellinger playing his home games just a six-hour car ride away, but not in his hometown where he’d be besieged by ticket requests and favors, has been ideal.
The Dodgers have spring training in Phoenix. His brother, Cole, is a minor-league pitcher with the San Diego Padres organization. His sister is a professional counselor with a master’s degree in Phoenix.
“I couldn’t ask for anything better,’’ Cody says. “I’m close to home, but I’m not at home. I’m playing for the Dodgers. And my family can come out and watch me pretty much just about any game.’’
What more could anyone want?
“Well,’’ Cody says, breaking into a slow grin, “a World Series for starters. We’ve been there. Now we got to win one.
“I’ve seen my dad’s three rings.
“I’d love to have one for myself.’’
Only this time, he would be the guest of honor on that float, fans screaming his name, and his proud parents and siblings sitting right alongside him.
“Now, that would be a dream,’’ Cody Bellinger says, “for all of us.’’
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