Measuring impact of the Belle legacy

Perspective: Albert Belle leaves baseball as one of its great offensive forces. But he also will be judged by his sometimes troubling behavior on and off the field.

March 09, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | By Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Albert Belle did not answer a lot of questions during his spectacular and controversial 12-year major-league career, but he continues to raise them even as he prepares for life after baseball.

His playing career apparently came to an end last night, when the Orioles announced that doctors had determined his arthritic hip made him "totally disabled and unable to continue as a baseball player."

His baseball legacy remains open to debate.

The guy was one of the most productive hitters of his era, but will go down in history as one of the most reviled players of all time.

He was considered one of the game's most intelligent players, yet pulled one self-defeating stunt after another until he became a symbol of all that could be wrong with professional sports.

So what made him tick?

And why did he always seem to be ticked off?

It probably would take a busload of psychologists to figure that out. Belle grew up in a solid middle-class home, the son of two teachers. He was a good student at Louisiana State University, but his legendary temper would become his defining characteristic long before he was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the second round of the 1987 free-agent draft.

He climbed into the stands during a college game to get at a heckler, the first of several off-field incidents that would checker an otherwise stellar playing career. Belle was suspended for firing a baseball into the chest of a fan at Cleveland Stadium in 1991 and got in trouble again with a similar offense involving a Sports Illustrated photographer in 1996. He also was suspended after being caught with a corked bat during the 1994 season.

One of the most highly publicized blowups of his career came at the 1995 World Series, when Belle delivered an obscenity-laced tirade at NBC's Hannah Storm before Game 3, but the list of Belle's indiscretions is as long as some of the mammoth home runs that made him one of baseball's most feared hitters.

He could even get in trouble at home, once being fined $100 for trying to chase down a group of misbehaving trick-or-treaters with his car on Halloween.

"There were two halves to his career," said former Cleveland Indians executive Dan O'Dowd, who is the general manager of the Colorado Rockies. "From a performance standpoint, he was one of the most dominating performers in the history of the [Indians] franchise -- a run-production machine.

"From an off-field perspective, he was a very different individual ... very hard to figure out. He didn't allow a lot of people to endear themselves to him. He was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

Early trouble, promise

O'Dowd was the first member of the Indians organization to deal with Belle's darker side. The Indians farm director in the late 1980s, he steered Belle through parts of three minor-league seasons, all the while butting heads with an extremely talented player who felt he was not advancing through the organization quickly enough. Three times over that period, Belle was suspended by the club.

And he apparently didn't cool down over the winter. He also was thrown off a Mexican League team in 1988 and was released by the Ponce Lions of the Puerto Rican Winter League in 1990.

"He was a handful," O'Dowd said. "Albert thought he should be further along in player development, and I didn't necessarily agree. But Albert and I had a respectful relationship. It was never personal."

There were demons, which the Indians tried to exorcise with a 12-step program of alcohol rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic in 1990. Belle, who had been known as Joey throughout his youth, came back a supposedly changed man. He asked to be called by his given name, Albert, and insisted his behavior would be governed more by his "spirituality."

Yet the outbursts continued. While his performance at the plate quickly established him as one of baseball's most dangerous hitters, his episodes of uncontrolled rage led to regular disciplinary action from the American League office.

Belle was suspended by the AL four times from 1991 to 1994. He also would be reprimanded for gambling and fined $50,000 for the tirade against Storm.

A lesser player might have worn out his welcome, but Belle clearly was a special talent. He had at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in eight consecutive seasons from 1992 to 1999, a performance matched or exceeded by three other players in major-league history -- Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx.

Cleveland resurgence

He may have been "Angry Albert" to the rest of the baseball world, but to the fans of Cleveland, he was the cornerstone of a baseball renaissance that would transform the Indians from one of baseball's all-time doormats into one of most dominant teams of the 1990s.

"Albert has put up some tremendous offensive numbers throughout his career," said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove, who also managed him for six seasons in Cleveland. "I would say Hall of Fame numbers. Baseball is going to miss people who can do those sorts of things.

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