Media mole spills the beans to Belle on plot against him

ON BASEBALL

July 14, 1996|By BUSTER OLNEY | BUSTER OLNEY,SUN STAFF

Cleveland Indians slugger Albert Belle said last week that he is the victim of a smear campaign by the media.

How did the man figure it out? Belle must have friends in the Central Intelligence Agency, sleuths who sniffed out the nationwide conspiracy. Or maybe there's a leak in the Baseball Writers' Association of America, and if there is, we'll find the cad and thrash him or her with our press passes.

Belle must know the whole story by now. He must know about members of the baseball media secretly gathering at a remote Montana cabin in 1989, the year Belle broke into the majors. He must know how writers and broadcasters decided to single out Belle and smear his reputation, then chewed on elk and drank home brew.

What a complex plan we had to ruin Belle's image. That fan who yelled nasty things at Belle, prompting the Indians outfielder to fire a baseball at him? He was a baseball writers' operative, hired in Montana, given airfare and free season tickets, plus a bat autographed by Bob Uecker, who is, of course, one of us, the baseball media. Belle was suspended for that incident, but rest assured, that was the media's fault, a total setup.

Remember those fights Belle had, charging the mound? We confess: the Baseball Writers' Association ordered the pitchers to throw at him. It wasn't hard to arrange, not when you have the power to offer a year's subscription to Field and Stream in return (we had to enlist our outdoors brethren for that enticement).

The bat-corking incident in 1994 was a highlight for the baseball media. Belle's bat was confiscated and, after the Indians were accused of stealing the offending bat from the umpires' dressing room, the bat was found to contain cork and Belle was suspended.

Truth is, the baseball media was responsible. ESPN's Peter Gammons corked a bat in the basement of his Boston-area home, then threw the tools into the Charles River at midnight. Posing as a clubhouse attendant, Gammons slipped into the Indians' dressing room and switched bats.

The White Sox are convinced, to this day, that one or two members of the Indians were responsible for crawling into the umpires' dressing room after removing ceiling tiles and grabbing the corked bat. Actually, it was Bob Costas and Mike Lupica, two of the more diminutive members of the baseball media, who were sent to ensure Gammons didn't leave his fingerprints on the bat.

Belle unleashed a tirade at NBC's Hannah Storm during the 1995 World Series, an incident that cost him $50,000 in fines. What Belle may not know is that Storm went through an intensive training course in the African desert in preparation for this dangerous assignment. Code name: How To Offend Albert Belle By Merely Standing In Place. A complete success, we thought.

The Indians lost the World Series and Belle went home, but the baseball media wouldn't let up. We hired a couple of kids to pull off a standard Halloween prank -- egging his house. Then, when Belle innocently charged out of his home, climbed into his pickup and drove across a lawn in search of the offenders, Sun columnist Ken Rosenthal raced in front of Belle's truck, leaving -- the impression the Indians slugger was trying to run down the trick-or-treaters.

Perhaps our plot began to unravel this April, when we sent a Sports Illustrated photographer to brazenly take pictures of Belle. Not only that, but we hired a photographer with really big hands, so when Belle happened to fire baseballs in his direction, he was sure to be hit on the knuckles, creating another furor, further smearing Belle's image.

What nobody knows, however, is just how far our villainy extends, how deep our resources really are. In that original meeting in Montana in 1989, the baseball media allotted $1 million to develop our own talent, and we gave him a name: Fernando Vina.

In return for a few positive printed words on the exploits of acting commissioner Bud Selig, the baseball media placed Vina with a team in the same division as Belle, the Milwaukee Brewers. Then we waited, leaving Vina with these permanent instructions: Should the opportunity ever arise, place your jaw on Belle's elbow.

Vina did this expertly in May. Belle's image was tarnished further, and we laughed and danced some more in Montana during the All-Star break.

But Belle found out. He uncovered the whole smear campaign.

We must find the leak. We must plug the leak.

Ripken on retirement

Cal Ripken was part of the standing ovation for Ozzie Smith at the All-Star Game, but doesn't want to contemplate his own retirement.

"I think all of us think that if you play long enough and stay healthy, someone is going to figure out a way for you to play the game forever," Ripken said. "The reality is that it's going to end sometime.

"The result is that there's a space in the back of [your] mind that someone is going to figure out how it's not going to end. You'll just keep on playing. Retirement will be a thing of the past. You'll be able to play for the rest of your life."

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