It got so last season that relief pitcher Heath Bell knew the airline timetables between New York and Norfolk by heart. Bell made the trip from the Mets to their Triple-A farm club nine times -- optioned four times, recalled five times. He stayed four days once in May, two days another time in August.

That yo-yo lifestyle ended for the burly reliever after he was traded to San Diego last November. He has emerged as an important member of one of the best bullpens in baseball, a key setup man for all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman.

With a week to go in August, Bell has appeared in a career-high 62 games and is among the Major League bullpen leaders in strikeouts (73) and innings pitched (71 1/3). His five wins are a career high and he leads the team with 25 holds.

Most impressive is his 2.52 ERA. He had a scoreless stretch of 22 appearances from May 18-June 8 and another scoreless string over seven appearances from Aug. 3-16. He allowed one hit in 9 1/3 shutout innings from April 24-May 7.

Pretty good for a guy who came over to the Padres with a career ERA of 4.92 in 81 games with the Mets over parts of three years. When people ask the right-hander the best thing about playing in New York, he quips, "Getting traded to San Diego."

The Padres feel the same way. "He's been a major part of our bullpen success," manager Bud Black said.

Bell came to San Diego in a low-profile four-player trade. There were subtle hints in his resume that he might be a productive addition to the Padres' relief corps. He did not allow a run at home for either the Mets or Norfolk last season, throwing a combined 34 shutout innings in friendly settings. He also had at least one strikeout in 28 of his 30 appearances with Norfolk. So he seemed worth the risk.

Given the opportunity to show what he could do in Spring Training, Bell responded with a 0.90 ERA that earned him a spot in the bullpen.

"It was simple," he said. "San Diego wanted me and New York didn't want me."

The irony of that is that while the Mets scrambled to put together their bullpen this season, Bell moved comfortably into the Padres' relief corps, becoming a major contributor almost immediately.

The road to the Major Leagues was a circuitous one for Bell. A walk-on at Rancho Santiago College, he was drafted in the 69th round of the 1997 First-Year Player Draft by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and signed a free agent contract with the Mets a year later. He drifted through the New York farm system for the next seven seasons, largely ignored and nearly released after he struggled through a difficult 2003 season when he had a 4.71 ERA.

The problem turned out to be an undiagnosed stress fracture in his pitching arm.

He hung on and showed enough the next season to earn his first Major League chance. 2004. In his first appearance with New York, he threw two scoreless innings and recorded three strikeouts against the Padres.

He shuttled back and forth between the Mets and Triple-A Norfolk the next two seasons but his inflated ERA (5.59 in 2005 and 5.11 in 2006) left him on the fringe of their roster and eventually traded. Still, he is grateful to the Mets for the opportunity to play.

"They're the ones who gave me a chance," he said. "I'm always going to be grateful from that aspect. And I'm really grateful for San Diego giving me a big chance to perform in the big leagues and show what I can do."

Bell would like to stick around baseball after he's through playing, perhaps as a pitching coach. Then he remembered the long road he traveled to reach the big leagues.

"But I'd want it to be in the Majors, not the Minors," he said. "I've been on way too many bus rides."

Hal Bock is a freelance writer based in New York.