Bell played his high school baseball at J.M. Tate High School, located in Cantonment, Florida. Originally a first-round pick of the Minnesota Twins in 1984, Bell made 129 errors over his first three minor-league seasons. The following year he was traded to the Cleveland Indians in a deal that brought starterBert Blyleven to the Twins. When he finally reached the majors in 1986, he faced Blyleven in his first major-league at-bat. During this moment, Bell ripped the first pitch he saw from Blyleven for a home run.
Bell maintained his reputation as one of the best shortstops in the 1990s. His range was only average but he had a great knowledge of the hitters and positioned himself well. He won a Gold Glove Award in 1993, breaking a string of thirteen straight National League Gold Gloves at shortstop by Ozzie Smith. It was also the first Gold Glove by a Pirate shortstop since Gene Alley's back-to-back honors in 1966 and 1967.
Though mostly a singles and doubles hitter at first, Bell was also an expert at bunting. Bell did show early signs of his power potential hitting 21 home runs in 1997 and 20 in 1998. A trial switch to second base at end of the '98 season became a permanent move the next spring. Bell belted 36 of his 38 homers from his new position, a total exceeded only by Rogers Hornsby, Davey Johnson and Ryne Sandberg among second basemen. One of those round-trippers, was a sixth-inning grand slam off the Oakland AthleticspitcherJimmy Haynes on the final game before the All-Star break, that won $1 million for an Arizona fan, Gylene Hoyle, who had correctly predicted the batter and the inning for a bases-loaded blast.
In the 2001 World Series, Bell scored the series winning run in Game 7 on a Luis Gonzalez bloop-single, then what would become an iconic image was Bell clapping his hands over his head and then running into Diamondbacks third baseman Matt Williams' arms.
In his career, Bell batted for .265, with 195 home runs, 868 runs batted in, 1,123 runs scored, 1,964 hits, 394 doubles, 67 triples and 91 stolen bases. As a player, Bell was well known for wearing eyeglasses on the field.
After the 2006 season, Bell retired as bench coach of the Arizona Diamondbacks in order to spend more time with his family, who are located in Phoenix, Arizona and Tampa, Florida. He currently has a ballfield named after him in Phoenix, called Jay Bell Field. He became eligible for the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2009. 75% of the vote was necessary for induction, and 5% was necessary to stay on the ballot. He received 0.4% of the vote and dropped off the ballot.