Indians' Belle: stealth slugger

June 30, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

CLEVELAND -- Albert Belle is having a season every bit as remarkable as Ken Griffey and Frank Thomas, but don't you dare ask him about it.

Cleveland Indians officials advised Belle to stop talking to the media this week, figuring it's the only way he'll stop losing his temper with reporters.

For Belle, the media are the final frontier. No longer does he throw balls at fans or chase pitchers to the outfield. He's channeling his fury, and unleashing it on opponents.

Thomas never would have beaten the Orioles the way Belle did Tuesday night. Thomas would have taken Alan Mills' neck-high fastball for ball 2, when the count on Belle was already 0-1.

Patient Frank, Restless Albert.

Belle exploded out of his crouch, extended his arms and drilled Mills' 93-mph pitch -- several inches outside, as well as high -- for a game-winning, opposite-field home run.

"Where's Frank Thomas when you need him?" Orioles manager Johnny Oates asked.

Oates was joking, but Belle was at it again last night, crushing his 22nd home run off Mike Oquist in the fifth inning of the #F Orioles' 7-6 victory over the Indians.

Belle, 6 feet 2, 210 pounds, might be 3 inches shorter and nearly 50 pounds lighter than Thomas, but he's just as frightening, just as dominant.

"He's a very underrated ballplayer," the Orioles' Mike Devereaux said. "He can intimidate you. When he gets geared in, there's almost no stopping him."

How do you pitch him?

"I'd hit him every time -- that's the easy way," the Indians' Jose Mesa said, laughing.

How do you pitch him?

"Low and behind him," Orioles pitching coach Dick Bosman said, smiling.

Belle is on a 49-homer, 144-RBI pace, and his .368 batting average ranks third in the league. So how is it that he ranks ninth in the All-Star balloting among AL outfielders?

It's not just that he plays in Cleveland, not when the Indians are packing Jacobs Field and occupying first place this late in the season for the first time in 20 years.

No, Belle has an image problem.

He could be the biggest star in Cleveland, but few are even aware of his vast charity work, which ranges from serving on the mayor's crime commission to buying tickets for inner-city children.

Belle, 27, also has a phenomenal work ethic, and he's a student of the game, using index cards to keep notes on opposing pitchers.

Yet, when a Cleveland reporter asked Belle about the index cards on Monday, he erupted in an expletive-filled rage, accusing the reporter of rummaging through his locker.

The truth was that Indians manager Mike Hargrove had told the reporter about the cards, but Belle was in no mood for explanations, and a chance for him to show another side was lost.

He's the unknown slugger.

Maybe he always will be.

Orioles pitcher Ben McDonald was a freshman at LSU when Belle was a junior. Belle would have been a top pick in the 1987 draft, McDonald said, if only he had been in control of his emotions.

"What I saw was a guy who could run, throw, hit for average, hit for power -- and be impressive doing it," McDonald said. "Not knowing anything about baseball, I thought he'd be a star.

"I told people he should have been a top-five pick, but because of his problems, he wound up dropping to the second round. He was really a steal for Cleveland. I didn't see anybody better coming along."

Belle joined the Indians two years later, but it was hardly a smooth ascent. He was sent home from Single-A Waterloo, sent home from the Mexican League, sent back to the minors -- all for disciplinary reasons. In 1990, he even took a leave of absence from baseball.

He still retreats to the clubhouse tunnel to slam his bat in anger. At a Cleveland bar last season, he struck a taunting fan from Baltimore in the face with a Ping-Pong paddle. But on the field, he's finally maintaining his focus.

His home-run totals have increased from 28 to 34 to 38 the past three seasons, his RBI totals from 95 to 112 to 129. The big difference this season is that he's being more selective -- and seeing better pitches with Eddie Murray hitting behind him.

"He plays the game with controlled aggression," Orioles first base coach Davey Lopes said. "That's what I like about Albert Belle. He wants to beat your butt. You can see it."

"Early in his career, the consensus was, with the stroke he had, he wasn't going to be able to hit for much power. But he has tremendously quick hands and great bat speed. Every time I see him, he's improved. It's very noticeable. It opens your eyes."

It makes the Orioles long for Frank Thomas.

That might be all you need to know about Albert Belle.

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