On June 2 at Joe Martin Field in Bellingham, starting lineups will be announced, the national anthem will be performed and the fans will be settled in their seats as the Bellingham Bells take the field for the first time in 2017.
But the process of selecting the members of the 2017 roster will have begun nearly 10 months earlier, in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 campaign.
“While many people assume the roster is constructed in the few months before the season begins, much of the roster is put together as soon as the previous season has ended, during the months of August, September, and October,” Bells’ Recruiting Coordinator and Pitching Coach Jim Clem said.
As recruiting coordinator, Clem serves as the primary architect for Bellingham’s roster construction. Each season’s roster is a new home that Clem constructs, laying the foundation based on his relationships and contacts throughout the Pacific Northwest.
“We feel very fortunate to have Coach Clem leading the roster construction process,” Bells’ general manager Stephanie Morrell said. “He is extremely well-known in the baseball community, and over the course of the past seven seasons, has really been able to build some strong relationships with programs who have a deep level of trust in him, and a true understanding of the type of player we are looking for.”
While Clem is the point person for the construction of the Bells’ roster, the Hall of Fame coach is quick to note contributions the entire Bells’ staff has made in building the team each season, including making the tough decisions of which players to sign.
“I get lots of leads on players from other Bells coaches and the front office,” Clem says. “There are times when it will be one of the other coaches, often the head coach, or the front office that will initiate contact to find a player. Once players are found, the final determination of who makes the team is usually a collective decision involving the Bells’ head coach and myself, with approval coming from the front office. We believe and trust in each other. I like to think we make a great team!”
While the Bells’ staff are important decision makers when it comes to the player personnel on each year’s roster, there is another crucial group of decision makers the Bells work with: college coaches.
Because the West Coast League is a collegiate wood bat summer league that requires all players to have at least one year of college eligibility remaining, the Bells work closely with collegiate coaches from top programs all over the United States to identify the right type of player to suit up for the Bells.
Clem, who won 481 games as a high school coach at Burlington-Edison High School and sent over 100 of his players to the college ranks, notes building trust with coaches is crucial to the Bells’ success. This is why Bells fans often see the some of the same schools represented on the roster, year after year.
“Trust built on both sides is the key to finding the type of players we are seeking,” Clem said. “We are always trying to broaden our scope and our pool of players. You will find new schools represented on our team each summer, but those who follow Bells baseball, know that we have certain colleges that we do business with each year. This is primarily because of the trust that has been built between us over the years.”
Examples of long-standing relationships for the Bells include the University of Maine, Arizona State University and the University of Washington, all programs which have been represented on the Bells’ roster for the last four consecutive seasons.
Clem feels building trust with college coaches is key in finding a great Bells player, who can excel on the field, in the clubhouse and in the community.
“We are trying to fill a clubhouse with players who not only have talent, but who are also motivated to excel,” Clem says. “We are searching for players known to play with heart, who embrace being "team-first" guys. If you can find these types of players, you can create an atmosphere and a culture conducive to winning in baseball and in life. It’s not a perfect science, but the more you know the coaches you are working with, the better chance you have of finding the right guys.”
Clem’s contacts are certainly paying dividends this season, as the Bells have already announced signings with schools such as Pac-12 powerhouses Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona, programs that have not been represented on Bells’ rosters in the past several years.
“I have known some of the coaches from these first time schools for years, but it just so happens this was a year when the players they had for us were a good fit,” Clem says. “We are thankful they have trusted us to further help with the development of their players. They know the type of player we are looking for and our expectations, and they also know we will do our best to give their players a great summer experience!”
Despite the roster building process starting in the previous August, some of the most important signings come right before the season begins.
In the weeks before the Bells season kicks off, there is a flurry of activity on the roster, with injured and fatigued players being removed from team, and many 10-day contract players taking their place on the Bells.
Last summer, some 10-day contract players earned full-time roster spots and made huge contributions to the team.
Shane Hanon began the summer on a 10-day contract, and ended the summer with a Division I scholarship to Marshall University, a West Coast League All-Star game appearance and the WCL batting title. Meanwhile, Sehome High School graduate Josh Zavisubin went from a 10-day player to an All-WCL Honorable Mention selection after making the team and excelling as the Bells’ set up reliever out of the bullpen.
Clem often relies on his contacts to find 10-day players, who can end up making a difference for the Bells late into the summer.
“Much of any teams' success is dependent on quality 10-day players,” Clem says. “We have put a lot of emphasis on finding outstanding 10-day players, because we know that may be the best pool of players for us to draw from when we have an opening. We have found many 10-day players over the past six seasons that have made huge contributions to our team and have been some of our greatest Bells!”
While the process begins the day the previous season ends, the job of roster building is never fully done for Clem, Bells’ head coach Greg Goetz and the front office. Injuries will happen during the season, and the work done to identify 10-day players during the offseason allows the Bells to quickly find replacements to help the team succeed despite injuries.
Last season, nearly 50 players suited up for the Bells, but because of the work done by Clem and the Bells’ staff, the team overcame its injury plagued season to make its third straight playoff appearance, culminating in a trip to the WCL Championship Series.
In the end, Clem says the process has a simple goal, finding great players to join the Bells.
“Finding the right fit often comes down to the timing, and ultimately, trusting our process,” Clem said. “A lot of thought and research goes into our decisions, but sometimes it’s just our gut intuition too. In the end, we hope we've found a great Bell!”