Belle battled fans, teammates, self
"Albert didn't trust people. He was always sure that somehow, somebody was out to get him," says Peter Gammons on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.
What if they held a Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and no one came? For years, Albert Belle's offensive numbers pointed directly toward Cooperstown, even while the often offensive outfielder antagonized the media, the very people who would vote for him. A bad hip may have rescued Cooperstown, prematurely halting a career that during the 1990s set high production and durability standards.
"Albert's snapped at me. He's gone off at other coaches," said Indians coach Dave Nelson in 1996. "You never know which Albert's going to show up."
At Louisiana State, Belle chased a heckling fan in the stands, was suspended and ended up missing the College World Series. In the minor leagues, he destroyed part of a bathroom after a tough night at bat. In the majors, he turned up the intensity. He struck a photographer and a fan with thrown balls in separate incidents, charged the mound to fight pitchers, verbally chastised NBC reporter Hannah Storm before a World Series game, chased egg-throwing teenagers from his house on Halloween and leveled Milwaukee infielder Fernando Vina with a forearm hit while running the bases.
"He uses his emotions to propel him, especially anger," said Indians clubhouse attendant and friend Frank Mancini.
Belle, 6-foot-2 and 210 pounds, swung an angry bat for most of his 12 major league seasons, glaring menacingly at pitchers and batting .295 in 1,539 games. A four-time All-Star starter (1994-97), he retired with 381 home runs, 1,239 RBI and a .564 slugging average.
In 1995, a season shortened to 144 games because of a work stoppage, he became the first player to amass 50 doubles and 50 homers in the same year. In each of his last nine seasons, Belle knocked in more than 100 runs. Meticulous in his preparation, he brought an aggressive attitude to the field. "That's the only way I know how to play," he said upon joining the Baltimore Orioles, his third and last team, in 1999.
Albert Jojuan Belle was born Aug. 25, 1966, in Shreveport, La., and had a fraternal twin, Terry. His parents, Albert Sr. and Carrie, were schoolteachers. Known then as Joey, Belle became an all-state baseball player at Huntingdon High School, where he graduated sixth in a class of 266. He then became a heralded prospect at LSU.
People close to him said Belle's personality changed after his sophomore season when publications predicted he'd be a high selection in the following year's draft. He turned tense, often angry, they said, responding poorly to the pressure. As a junior, Belle went after a fan who shouted racial insults during a Southeastern Conference tournament game. Belle, who was batting .349 with 21 homers, was suspended for the rest of the postseason.
Some baseball executives shied from drafting Belle in 1987 because of his volatility -- Atlanta general manager Bobby Cox threatened his farm director with dismissal if he chose the outfielder -- but Cleveland picked him in the second round.
Belle made his major league debut in July 1989, getting his first hit against Nolan Ryan, and batted .225 over 62 games as a rookie. A closet drinker who often consumed to excess, Belle spent 10 weeks in an alcohol rehab clinic the next year after ripping up a bathroom while playing in Triple A. He exchanged "Joey" for "Albert" in rehab, emerging with a new name and new focus.
"It's too hard to stay concentrated and focused enough to play major league baseball when there's alcohol in your system," he said.
Belle ditched drinking, but not his temper. After appearing in nine games with Cleveland in 1990, he became the regular leftfielder in 1991, batting .282 with 28 homers and 95 RBI. In a game in May, Belle heard a fan tauntingly invite him to a keg party, then picked up a foul ball and rifled it into the fan's chest. He was suspended for six games.
While with Cleveland, Belle continued to hit and find trouble. Using a compact swing, he averaged 41 homers and 123 RBI over his next five years, which included the strike-shortened 1994 season. He also received three-game suspensions in 1992 and 1993 for charging pitchers and was banned for seven games in 1994 after using a corked bat.
"People are looking at the whole thing," Vaughn said, "and that it's not just numbers."
Before Game 3 of the World Series against Atlanta, Belle yelled at reporters to leave the dugout area, and when NBC's Storm refused to move, he screamed profanities at her, leaving her shaken. Four months later, Commissioner Bud Selig fined Belle a record $50,000 for his actions.
Belle got his first RBI of the Series in Game 3, then homered in the next two games, but the Indians lost in six.
All the while, fans in Cleveland embraced him. Supporters, including many teammates, cited his desire for privacy, a high concentration level and perfectionist bent, and said Belle needed only to be left alone. "I'm not going to change my personality because someone wants me to," Belle said. And he didn't, though he frequently apologized for his actions.
A week after the tirade against Storm, Belle made news when he pursued a group of teens who had thrown eggs at his house on Halloween night. He was fined $100.
Belle filed for free agency after his 48-homer, 148-RBI season of 1996 and signed with the Chicago White Sox for a then-record $55 million over five years. The Indians knew they would miss Belle's bat but not his conduct. "It was always an adventure with Albert," Cleveland catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. said.
A fresh start failed to end Belle's problems. In June 1997, the American League fined him $5,000 for "making an obscene gesture" to fans in a game at Cleveland. Six weeks later, he was hit with a domestic battery charge after allegedly striking his girlfriend and pulling her phone out of the wall. The woman later dropped the charge.
Belle's batting average fell 37 points to .274 that season, and he had 30 homers and 116 RBI. He rebounded with a .328-49-152 season in 1998, baseball's magical long-ball year, and that fall became a free agent again when the White Sox rejected his request for a large raise. His contract allowed him to demand that he remain among the three highest-paid players in the game.
He again became No. 1 in salary when he signed a five-year, $65-million deal with Baltimore. Belle was 32, and considering how seldom he sat out, the contract's length raised little concern.
Belle's streak of 392 games played, the majors' longest at the time, ended in June 1999 when he was benched by manager Ray Miller for lack of hustle. He hit 37 homers that year but slipped to 23 the next, slowed by his arthritic hip. Belle homered on Oct. 1, 2000, the season's final game and last of his career.