“He’s incredible,” said Kenley Jansen, the Dodgers’ All-Star closer. “He’s probably going to break Barry Bonds’s record. He might do it in two years if he keeps hitting two every game.”
It was hard to tell which home run record Jansen meant — 73 in a season or 762 in a career — but Bellinger shattered his family’s home run record more than two weeks ago, when he connected against the Cincinnati Reds for his 13th, which came in his 154th career at-bat. Clay hit 12 in 311 career at-bats.
“We were at the house watching,” Clay Bellinger said. “I think my wife said something first: ‘You know, he passed you now!’ I was hoping he was going to, you know what I mean? Maybe not so fast.…”
Clay Bellinger spoke late Sunday afternoon in the stands behind home plate at Dodger Stadium, having watched from the front row as more than 40,000 fans chanted his son’s first name. He has heard such cheering for himself, if not by name, then for his greatest career moment: his catch at the top of the left-field wall in Game 2 of the 2000 World Series, to steal a possible homer by the Mets’ Todd Zeile in the ninth inning.
That helped the Bellinger family earn a ride through Lower Manhattan in a championship parade for the second year in a row. Cody was 4 and 5 years old at the parades, in 1999 and 2000, and said they were some of his earliest memories. A few years ago, the family watched the home movies, transferred from videocassettes to DVDs. Cody’s brother Cole — who was drafted by the San Diego Padres this month — was just a baby, bundled up in the arms of his mother, Jennifer. Cody got into the spirit.
“You’ve got literally millions of people, 300 deep down alleyways, hucking toilet paper at you,” Clay Bellinger said. “I remember him taking stuff and throwing it back at everybody. It was an insane time, man.”
He reflected a bit more, and continued: “Hopefully, these guys keep doing what they’re doing, and they get a chance to experience one of them. It’s been a few years, I think. I don’t know, exactly.”
Clay Bellinger had one at-bat — his final one in the majors, as it turned out — for the Angels in 2002, the last year the World Series came to Southern California. The Dodgers have not made it since winning it in 1988, making this the longest stretch in team history without a World Series appearance.
Their victory Sunday was their 10th in a row and their 17th consecutive game with a homer, their longest such streak since 1960, when a different slugger, Frank Howard, was the National League rookie of the year. Howard was a hulking specimen — when he played in Washington, they called him the Capital Punisher — but Bellinger is tall and lean, with an all-around set of skills.
“He hits so many home runs that guys don’t get to see him run much, but he’s the fastest guy on the team,” Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood said. “It’s beautiful to watch him run. I mean, I’d literally rather see him hit a double so I could watch him run. He hit one out the other night, and I was like, ‘Why don’t you mix in a double every now and then?’ He’s got a great arm, hits for average, hits for power, plays great defense. He’s absolutely special.”
During the weekend, Bellinger’s teammates delighted in finally having a reason to tease him: his sheepish admission, to ESPN, that he does not know who Jerry Seinfeld is. Bellinger protested in the clubhouse — he knew the name, and recognized the face when he saw a picture — but it underscored his youth.
Seven players have appeared in the majors this season who are younger than Bellinger, but all signed their first pro contracts before he did. Bellinger’s Chandler, Ariz., team played in the Little League World Series in 2007, but he did not make the varsity team in high school until his junior year. The Dodgers drafted him in the fourth round in 2013, and in his first two seasons of rookie ball, he hit four home runs in 377 at-bats.
“I had the power — never really used it in a game, didn’t know how to use it in a game,” Bellinger said, explaining that he changed his swing in 2015, at Class A Rancho Cucamonga. “I created a little thing with my hands, just to create a more consistent plane to backspin balls, and obviously growing into your body helps. It’s kind of complicated, more about starting the barrel flat and then creating a movement — flat to up, I guess — going towards the pitcher.”
Bellinger’s agent, Scott Boras, said he could tell in spring training that Bellinger was already one of the most talented players in the game. Bellinger reminded Boras of another one of his clients, Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs, who is also a slugger with the athleticism to play multiple positions. In Bellinger’s case, it is first base and the outfield corners. Bellinger also shares Bryant’s distinctly modern hitting approach: Launch everything hard and to the sky.
Bellinger said: “It’s like people say: They’re starting to play the shifts now, so what’s the sense of hitting a ground ball to the right side when you’re probably gonna be out? So start trying to hit some fly balls and work on that. They’re teaching that all over the place nowadays.”
Clay Bellinger is now a firefighter in Gilbert, Ariz., but has also coached youth baseball, like Bryant’s father, Mike, who played in the minors. Boras said Clay Bellinger “reveres the game and takes nothing for granted,” and Cody, it seems, has inherited the utility man’s mind-set.
Manager Dave Roberts said Bellinger first impressed him in the Dodgers’ major league camp last year, at age 20, by being attentive and observant, but also confident. The Dodgers’ coaches have told Clay, approvingly, that his son arrives early, no matter how he is playing. Manny Mota, a former Dodgers All-Star who is now a broadcaster, gives Cody the same message: You already got paid for yesterday. Cody said he appreciates the reminder.
“I go into the day with a new mind, refreshed mind, so I don’t really think about it too much, whether it’s good or bad,” he said. “I go to the cage every day and work on my swing and try to stay consistent.”
His father is not so sure about that swing, actually. The swing from Class A, which produced 30 home runs and sent Cody on his path to the majors, has evolved.
“He changed it again to get this new thing a lot of people are teaching: getting in this loaded, cocked position,” Clay Bellinger said. “It’s a lot of movement, and I’ve never been a big fan of that. It seems like you’ve got to be so on point.”
Clay Bellinger smiled. He cannot argue with the results. Inevitably, there will be slumps and adjustments, as there are for all players, even those with plaques near Oneonta. But few have ever made such a rousing introduction.