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Indians Indians Archive Blast From The Past: Albert Belle (With Bonus Blastage!)
Written by Greg Popelka

Greg Popelka

albert_belle_joey_debutOK, ready?

Inhaling deeply, then holding it in while rattling off in a high-energy monotone:

“He had a terrible temper and busted things up with his bat and threw a ball at a photographer and at a fan and was known as Joey until he underwent treatment for alcoholism and was alleged to have taken performance enhancing drugs and used a corked bat and threw a forearm at Fernando Vina and admitted losing a lot of money gambling and tried to run down kids who threw eggs at his home on Halloween and was arrested for stalking an ex-girlfriend-” GASP, gasp. Almost made it through the entire litany of what you'll typically read about Albert Belle. I didn't get to removing the “Do Not Remove” tag from his mattress, leaving the toilet seat up, or not eating his brussel sprouts as a toddler.


albert_belle_gameday_coverYou knew all that stuff. You were there for most of it. And I know I shouldn't make light of it like that. Yet the angry, bitter disposition of Albert Belle fed his intensity, and his intensity fueled his ability as a feared power hitter. I was on board with that, perhaps to a fault- I was weary of the early 1990s, good-but-soft Cleveland Cavaliers, and I reveled in Belle's role as the feared bully on the suddenly-dominant Cleveland Indians. He was the original sports figure to be accompanied by the introduction to AC/DC's Hells Bells. It was powerful.


I had an early encounter with Belle, in 1993. It was on August 15 (yeah, I looked it up). I had taken my family to a late-season game against the Texas Rangers. The Tribe was out of the race (go figure), but they had some young talent and were going for the series sweep. Starter Jose Mesa was attempting to win his tenth game of the season, and he was facing Nolan Ryan. Kenny, Carlos, Albert, Sorrento, and Thome were in the lineup that day. Sandy was a late inning replacement. The Rangers' Julio Franco was their DH (yes, I shouted, “HOOLEEOOO”). Juan Gonzalez went yard on Mesa in the first inning. To the hushed crowd, the home run looked like a popup on steroids (!). Appearing to reach its apex above the top of the old stadium, the ball drifted like a knuckleball to the seats beyond the fence in left field. You hear about balls that 'get out in a hurry'; this was the opposite of that. Much of the rest of the game was non-descript. Belle's groundout scored Wayne Kirby in the 4th, but the Tribe lost, 4-1. We did see Nolan Ryan pitch seven innings and earn the final win of his career.


But since the Indians were moving on to the new ballpark at Gateway the following season, the game in 1993 was a lot about soaking in the sights and smells of old Muni. Well before game time, I was walking our two-year-old daughter through the outer concourse on the ground level. Surprisingly (for that stadium), there was a fan-friendly activity set up there on that day: a photographer was taking photos of anyone who wanted a 'baseball card' of themselves. I draped a Tribe jersey around her shoulders, and put a toy batting helmet on her head. The photo was taken while she was still in pre-cry mode. She'll love this when she gets older, I told myself. When that was over, we continued walking along the concourse in the direction of the outfield seats.


albert-encoreSuddenly appearing, ten feet in front of us and closing, was Albert Belle. He was walking slowly, in full uniform, carrying a bat in one hand. His demeanor seemed reasonably pleasant. Still holding hands with my daughter, it was my turn to be conflicted. Should we stop? Should we say something? It was very early, yet he had his uni on. Should we pretend we don't see him? That would be pretty stupid. I would interrupt my brief stare to acknowledge him, but he had-a-nas-ty-rep-u-tay-tion-as-a-cru-u-el-dude. I took a second to decide… until I found myself turned, and gazing at BELLE 8 on his back. Before the moment completely passed, I made eye contact with a couple other guys who were also wondering, “What the--?”

I later learned there was a batting cage under the bleachers, and that Belle spent countless hours there- before and after games. Our encounter with Belle happened to coincide with his trip from the cage to the clubhouse. In future seasons at Jacobs Field, Belle would be known to take BP in between at-bats.


Anyway, so what if Albert was difficult with reporters? That wasn't my problem. They chose their profession. An example was Hannah Storm. She was the NBC reporter who Belle chased out of the Tribe dugout before a 1995 World Series game. Dutifully nodding: Yes, yes, that was bad, Albert- the way you rudely treated that reporter whom I'd remembered from several years earlier. The Cleveland Browns had purged the ghost of losing to the Broncos. It was a time to really bask in a GREAT win, which ironically came after the conversion of a Denver fumble into a score. It was such a satisfying game that a Cleveland bar I visited a couple years later was randomly playing a recording of it on a giant TV screen. But after the game, all Ms. Storm could do was harp on the Dawg Pound fans' throwing of debris on the field, which caused the refs to switch goals in the fourth quarter. This caused the wind to be at the back of Matt Bahr as he kicked the 48-yard game-winner as time expired. That Hannah Storm- she just would not let that story go. Should I have felt guilty about smiling when learning that Belle dispatched her from 'our' dugout? Yes. Yes, I should have. So, Albert? That was bad.


albert_belle_bat_behind_headIn the 1990s, there was no better hitter than Albert Belle. By the end of 1993, he was leading the team in various offensive categories, and 1994 saw him emerge as a Triple Crown threat. He went .357/36/101 in the 106-game shortened season.


One of my favorite baseball stories played out in 1994. The Chicago White Sox, who were battling to hold off the charging Indians in the standings, were hosting the Tribe. In the first inning, Sox manager Gene Lamont asked the umpire to confiscate Belle’s bat. He had heard it might be filled with cork. This type of tampering was illegal, although the benefit to a hitter is debatable.


During the game, Indians starting pitcher Jason Grimsley decided he could retrieve the bat from the umpires’ dressing room. Armed with a flashlight and accompanied by an undisclosed non-player assistant, Grimsley pushed a ceiling tile out of the way in his own clubhouse. He climbed above the ceiling and onto an 18in.-wide cinderblock wall. In the hot ceiling, cramped by the sloping stands above, Grimsley traveled 30ft. atop the wall. He guessed where the ump’s room was, and removed the ceiling tile- only to make eye contact with someone sitting on the couch in the groundskeepers’ quarters. The unknown person kept quiet as Grimsley replaced the ceiling piece and traveled further through the ceiling. He reached the umps’ room and dropped down to a refrigerator, then to the floor. He found Belle’s bat and replaced it with an untampered version- only, it wasn’t an Albert Belle bat; it was an grimy, old, pine tar-covered, Paul Sorrento bat. Apparently, there were no Albert Belle bats which were not corked! Grimsley and his accomplice left the room the way they entered, and made it back to the Indians’ clubhouse. If the theft would have taken place a little earlier, or a few moments later, they would have been busted by officials entering the umps’ locked room.


It could not have been more obvious that Belle’s bat had been stolen. The White Sox were furious. They threatened to call the FBI.


Nobody at the time claimed to know who the culprit was. The Chicago Tribune reported that some non-uniformed members of the Indians organization were prime suspects. Authorities were also looking at “an identified and fervent Cleveland fan who made the trip here from Shaker Heights, Ohio”.


At least twice- on a radio interview and in Baseball Digest, Belle insisted that the White Sox had actually broken into the Indians’ clubhouse before the game, and substituted a corked bat for the one he was using. I’m pretty sure it was with a straight face, since it's Albert Belle we're talking about, here.


Belle served a suspension, after which he returned with a vengeance. He went on a hot streak over the remaining games played in that strike-shortened season.


Five full years later, Grimsley confessed publicly to the break-in and the theft of Belle’s bat. He said it was the hardest he'd ever felt his heart pumping. He also said Belle rewarded him with a free round of golf. It never did come out as to who tipped off Lamont in the first place.


(Belle cheated. Grimsley executed the break-in, and stole the bat to cover up the cheating. Their teammates were supportive of both players. So how serious were these indiscretions? My take is there are grave breaches of the rules, and there is gamesmanship. Baseball history is filled to the brim with gamesmanship, including the Tribe’s Gaylord Perry winning a Cy Young award with the help of illegal pitches, to Bob Feller and some teammates using his military binoculars to steal signs from the outfield. “Bat-Gate” smacks of gamesmanship.)


1995 was when Belle accomplished the unheard-of 50-homer, 50-doubles season (which was only 144 games long). Along the way, he tied, surpassed, or hit the historical top ten list for several other batting achievements.


And the team he carried on his back won the pennant.


albert_belle_mo_vaughnOf course, it was Mo Vaughn who won the American League MVP award in 1995. Reporters were proud of not voting for Belle because of his surly behavior (and oh, nooo- Vaughn playing for media-mecca Boston was definitely not a factor). What a crock-o‘crap. Incredibly, Mike Hargrove didn’t even win Manager of the Year. Lou Piniella did. My read on that is Belle made Hargrove’s job of winning games appear too easy.


An interesting side-story from 1995, as a follow up to 1994's Bat-Gate. The White Sox were visiting the Indians for a four game series in May. The Sox were 11-17, eight games behind the 19-9 Indians. In game 1, Cleveland dug itself a 6-0 hole into the sixth inning before storming all the way back on the strength of a three-run homer by Dave Winfield. In game 2, Grimsley and three relievers stymied the Sox, 2-1. In game 3, the Tribe scored early and often enough to allow Orel Hershiser to coast into the 8th inning, on the way to a 6-3 victory. And in the finale, the Indians completed the sweep by going up 5 before winning 7-4. After this complete disaster in the eyes of the South-Siders, the team fired manager Gene Lamont. To me, that was like winning a fifth game. It was so… satisfying.


It is not known whether Sox shortstop Ozzie Guillen gave his team the choke sign.


1996 was another tremendous season for Belle, as he hit 48 home runs and drove in 148. Unfortunately, he jumped as a free agent to the WhiteSox when the season ended and would only return as Cleveland’s flavor-of-the-month, public enemy number one. Quiet, all-around good guy Matt Williams was acquired as a solid, run-producing bat to fill the void left by the departure of Belle. Of course, the White Sox had an undying man-crush for those 1990s Indians teams. At various times, they found a way to sign Belle, Manny Ramirez, Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel, Bartolo Colon, Jim Thome, Sandy Alomar Jr.,…


Belle eventually played for the Orioles before a hip injury proved serious enough to force him to retire in 2001. The Orioles reportedly had placed a large amount of insurance on Belle’s contract; it's said they did not suffer the monetary loss they could have been faced with. Some maintain that this payout began to signal the lessening availability of such injury insurance on pro athletes, at least with such favorable terms for their teams.


Hard to believe he has been out of Baseball for ten years- isn’t it? In a way, it’s kind of like hearing music you consider to be ‘new’, on a classic rock station.


So Belle’s career ended prematurely, and nobody ever was quite certain why Belle was so bitter, or what really made him tick. There were theories. Indians clubhouse attendant, Frank Mancini, was a close friend of Belle’s. His theory reportedly was rooted in Belle’s upbringing. The narrative is that as a youth, Belle was sheltered and pushed to pursue perfection. That doesn’t sound much different than many other kids. But whatever the cause, Belle emerged as a world class athlete who was focused to the highest extreme, and could not accept failure. And from 1989 through 1996, I was a fan. And an enabler.


Thank you for reading. Next week: Blast From The Past: The Relief Tandem of Don Mossi and Ray Narleski.


I had really wanted to write an Albert Belle piece. Only, I didn’t want to just dwell on his negatives. Shoot, I get grumpy, myself. If you’ve ever been around me when I have been sleep-deprived, or when I have skipped a meal, you would agree. I need to work on that.


For the moment, however, in order to keep my intensity- to fuel my own ability as a feared writer- I decided to reflect on some of my personal pet peeves. These change constantly, but here is where I am with those at this point in my life. Some are more aggravating than others, and truthfully, I think a couple are pretty funny. (Please try not to read them in the voice of Andy Rooney! Oops, I probably just guaranteed you will.)


Let's call it: Yeah, I Hate That. 


10. You know how when it is the baseball off-season, and Fantasy Camp is over, so the Indians front office people are back in town? And you are gearing up to write 30 weekly articles involving Indians history? Because you are an unabashed homer and want to showcase the positive?


You know how you call them to ask about contacting ex-players? Because you never know if an Albert Belle will open up and decide to say some things for the first time? And you know how they decide not to return your calls, because they apparently don't see a need for publicity? Yeah, I hate that.


9. Our older daughter is a now college-aged lifeguard at a water park, during the Summer. She has noted how some parents arrive at a public place and expect others to watch their kids. I remember the old days of allowing our small children to run around on a public playground jungle gym. You know how you suddenly become the only parents around, and end up babysitting 5-10 other kids who refuse to listen as you 'suggest' they stop pushing the little ones, or throwing rocks, etc.? Yeah, I hate that.


8. You know how you don't know much about classical music, but you are kind of into it when your middle-school musician is having her big concert? You're watching and they sound pretty good. You know how the music stops, and there are a few moments of silence? And some parents begin to clap, so you do too? And then the musical piece continues because it wasn’t over yet and you feel like an uncultured idiot? Yeah, I hate that.


7. You know how the 9/11 crisis is portrayed as a 'tragedy'? Yes, it was shocking, a disaster. But 'tragedy' implies there is a 'whoops' involved- right? “Whoops, I accidentally scraped the side of the hull of this luxury liner against a sizable iceberg.” “Whoops, somehow a wayward spark ignited the highly flammable gas which filled that giant dirigible.” Pearl Harbor wasn't a 'tragedy'. And 9/11 was an attack. But in our culture, it receives the more polite treatment of a 'tragedy'. Yeah, I hate that.


6. And about 9/11: One of the attackers is always referred to as the 'mastermind'. Really? Doesn't 'mastermind' imply a complex and difficult scheme? Because anyone could plan an attack on a soft, non-military target which is not on its guard. But you still hear how that 'tragedy' had a 'mastermind'. Yeah, I hate that.


5. One last 9/11 item. You know how people are inconvenienced because of the threat of 'masterminds' who want to cause 'tragedies'? Like when they tolerate the hassles at airports? And some say that surely the 'terrorists have won'? What the heck does that mean? No, they have not. Do these people really not understand we are winning? Then yeah, I hate that.


4. You know how you hear how Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results? No, he didn't. And no, it's not. Yeah, I hate that.


3. You know how other people want to control how you live your life because “If it can save just one person, it is worth it”? (Right, let's start with banning their cars.) Yeah, I hate that.


2. You know how you pick a spot in a parking lot, and someone else pulls through from the other side and parks in the spot you were closer to? Or: despite traffic in the lot, they stop and back into a spot- making others wait? Because they want to be aimed outward when leaving the lot. Apparently, they don't want to be the one who waits for traffic. Because it's all about them. Yeah, I hate that.


1. You know those sappy, drippy baseball songs that stick in your brain forever?

The worst is Talkin' baaa-sballll, Kluszewski, Campanella. Talkin' Baaa-sballll… AAAGH. Sports poetry is bad enough. But with the songs, I have to shut my eyes and concentrate on a good tune to get them out of my head.




But it is pesky. Stubborn.



You end up having to stick your fingers in your ears and concentrating. To kill it.




Yeah, I hate that.

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