OAKLAND -- In George Bell's fourth full season with the Toronto Blue Jays, the tantrums are less frequent, the mantle of success is more comfortable and the recognition comes in waves.

He has said that Dominican players don't receive the attention they deserve, but almost everyone in the game recognizes Bell as one of its best, most reliable performers.

He averaged 28 homers and 97 RBI his first three full major league seasons and is a cofavorite this year with Detroit's Alan Trammell for the American League's MVP award.

His credentials read like a dream season: first in the American League in RBI (104) and slugging .614. With 38 home runs, he appears about to overtake Oakland's Mark McGwire (39) for the league lead. He's top 10 in batting average at .308 and has hit around .370 since the all-star break -- best on his team.

On what may well be the American League's best team, Bell is currently the best player.

"His numbers speak for themselves," Toronto Manager Jimy Williams said. "I don't know if he's going to be the MVP because you people {media} decide that. But his season is there for everyone to see."

The fans apparently realize it, too, because this summer he became the first Blue Jay voted to a starting spot on the all-star team.

"As strange as it sounds, he's probably still underrated," teammate Jesse Barfield said. "People know about his home runs, but he makes tremendous defensive plays. I mean, he does it day in and day out. He had 17 assists last year {second only to Barfield}, but who knew that?"

For Bell, 27, recognition has been less than automatic. His image remains that of a moody, eccentric man with a temper almost as quick as his bat.

He was the guy suspended for drop-kicking pitcher Bruce Kison during a 1985 brawl. He was the guy who disagreed with an umpire's call during the 1985 AL playoffs, and later accused umpires of discriminating against Dominicans.

He was the guy who screamed at teammates and dressed down a reporter about a stupid question.

But this summer he has been mellower, more agreeable and occasionally more open. He still turns down most interview requests, but he does it politely.

What no one disputes is his greatness. He may have the quickest bat in the game today, and from a frail 154 pounds when he was signed in 1978, he's now a solid 194.

He got his 100th RBI in his 118th game, a club record, and recently reached base in 23 straight games. Since hitting .253 in April, he batted .352 with 11 homers in May, .273 with 11 homers in June, .330 with five homers in July and .348 with six homers in the first three weeks of August. His 38 homers are the most in a season for a Dominican (Pedro Guerrero had 33 in 1985).

To balance the scales of his notoriety, his teammates have told stories about another side of George Bell, especially his work with charities in his hometown of San Pedro de Macoris.

They tell of how at the end of each season he goes around and asks teammates for their spare gloves, caps and shoes, then takes them back to the Dominican to give to youngsters.

"I left school before the 12th grade because I had to play baseball," he told the Toronto Globe recently. "People don't understand that baseball is our education . . .

"When you look at guys like Pete Incaviglia and Bob Horner, who go from college to the big leagues, you see it's different for them," he said. "Dominican players have to work harder through the minor leagues."

But some of the people who know him best say he's not just sensitive about Dominicans. When a reporter's wife had a baby a couple of years ago, Bell asked about the child every day for almost a month. And two weeks ago, as the Blue Jays were entering a hotel lobby early one morning, he saw an old man trying to lift a bundle of newspapers.

Rushing over, Bell grabbed the papers and said, "Let me help."

This isn't to say he has gotten his fierce temper completely under control. Earlier this season he walked into the clubhouse and found himself penciled in the lineup as designated hitter. Bell didn't want to DH that day and let it be known, screaming long enough that Williams rewrote the lineup to put Bell back in left field.

A few weeks later, he got mad when third baseman Rance Mulliniks cut off one of his throws. Bell, thinking the throw would have gotten the runner at the plate, threw down his glove and stormed around the outfield cursing.

But his teammates swear he's mellower, and Bell has consented to a couple of interviews recently, including one with NBC sportscaster Marv Albert, telling him he didn't like such sessions because of all the silly questions.

Albert asked what he considered a silly question.

"People ask me what pitch I hit," he said. "I don't like that. That's personal." He added that answering something about what pitch he hit was like "asking about my wife."

He has also said he dislikes interviews because the subject of his 1985 comments about umpires always comes up. Bell said several times that day that umpires disliked Dominicans, but later said he was only joking. In another interview, he said he never made the remarks.

Another taboo subject is whether he thinks he'll win the MVP award.

"I'm happy about the recognition I've gotten," he said recently. "I think it takes a while for fans to accept you. If you do the same things for three or four years in a row, they'll recognize what you've done."

Interviews are only one of his pet peeves. He has let his teammates know that he hates the New York Yankees and doesn't think much of the Boston Red Sox.

On the Blue Jays' most recent trip to New York, Bell spotted a group of New York reporters, then appeared to start a fight with the Blue Jays' traveling secretary about some tickets he had requested for friends. Bell screamed at the man until the reporters left, then asked, "How was that?"

He has told friends he doesn't care much for the United States, especially Helena, Mont., where he was sent after signing a pro contract in 1978. He was 18, and said he has only bad memories of the way he was treated and the attitude of many Americans toward Dominicans.

"I was a fish out of water," he said. "The only Dominican in Helena."

At the same time, the MVP award may be more important to him than he has let on. He certainly thought being voted onto the all-star team was important; when the balloting was announced, teammates say Bell was almost beside himself with excitement. He said it was important because he is Dominican and the first Blue Jay to be selected.

"I think we're starting to get the recognition we deserve," he said, "and I'm happy about that. People in the States don't know how many good players we have in Toronto."

He said he was looking forward to seeing former Helena teammate Ryne Sandberg, now of the Chicago Cubs, at the all-star game.

"And," Bell said, "I really want to be there with my heroes."

Asked to name some of his heroes, he said, "I can't tell you that. I'm still an active player."