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Tuesday, March 6, 2001
Updated: March 7, 5:29 PM ET
Belle's injury is a tragedy -- really

By Ray Ratto
Special to ESPN.com

Albert Belle says it will take a miracle for him and his grandmother's hip to play baseball again, and it's hard not to feel for the guy.

Well, it's hard for some of us not to feel for the guy. In fact, those among us who do are standing in that really short line.

Belle, as you surely know if you've been to this site more than once in your life, has had a contentious/troubled/rancorous/pick-your-own-favorite-adjective-here relationship with those around him -- fans, teammates, even those gentle and always forgiving souls within the media leviathan. Belle didn't give many people much to go on in good times, and in bad times, well, the best advice was always "Duck!"

So why would anyone feel anything but "Ha! That'll Learn Ya!" for the man? Because, well, some of us are just plain sissies, that's why.

Belle's comprehensively repellent personality ranks among the worst in modern baseball history, even if you allow for the fact personality is usually judged by the single question, "How did he treat me?" Personality judgments are dangerous because of that; a lot of smart, good people were adjudged otherwise because they failed the warm-and-fuzzy test.

On that one, Albert scored an incomplete because he crumpled up the paper, hurled it at the proctor and stormed out of the room.

But admitting all that, it's still OK to feel for a guy whose most lucrative asset, his body, is breaking down before his eyes at an age when it shouldn't be. After all, a lot of people who found Joe Theismann an insufferable blowhard as a player winced when his leg snapped and expressed the lefthanded compliment, "He may have been kind of a jerk, but ... "

So we're giving Albert Belle a "but," too -- even if it works against so many people's better judgment.

For one, assuming he isn't going to be granted the miracle he seeks, he has almost surely lost his place in the Hall of Fame. His numbers aren't enough on their own, and you can't project numbers a person would have gotten if he hadn't gotten hurt. That's what parallel universes are for.

For two, his swing was a thing of uncontrolled glorious fury, matched by only a very few in the modern era. There was no elegance in Belle's game -- only cyclonic fury. Balls didn't leave his bat, they fled it. For those whose enjoyment of baseball is more visceral than statistical, Belle's swing was something to behold.

And for three, even the most mean-spirited of us, the ones who wanted to see Belle's career blow up in some hideously spectacular fashion, aren't getting what they want, either. Watching his career drip away, spring day after spring day, lacks for some the destructive rocketry that scratches the itch of the remorselessly judgmental.

Of course, this could all be premature. Belle may find a doctor, a therapist, a regimen that will make his hip reverse its as-yet-unabated Cheeto-fication. His career may not be over after all. Men and women have gone broke thousands of times over predicting the ways of the human body, both in health and in distress.

But if Belle is speaking of miracles after showing remarkably little interest in the supernatural side of the business all these years, you can deduce safely that he sees his own glass as nearly empty, and quite spotted besides. He sees the end, and even if he's wrong, watching him be wrong is painful enough.

Thus, you're allowed to feel a tinge of something for Albert Belle, even if it works against your once-bitten-twice-shy behavioral tenets. What he did as a baseball player was sufficiently unique that he should be remembered for more than what he did away from it.

And you may decide for yourselves in what proportions you should devote to either side. That is, after all, why we fought World War II -- to decide for ourselves how much sympathy should be accorded to a man who seemed at first, and maybe even sixth, glance to be unworthy of it.

Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.