Weighing stats vs. spats

Albert Belle: His numbers stack up with other Hall of Famers, but voters may count surliness against the slugger.

March 10, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Albert Belle was the most dominant hitter of the 1990s and one of the most controversial figures in baseball history.

Of that, there is no dispute.

He hit 381 career home runs and is the only player ever to have 50 home runs and 50 doubles in the same season. He also is one of only four players in baseball history to amass at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in eight consecutive seasons.

Of that, there is statistical proof.

So, what is going to happen in five years when the voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America consider Belle's candidacy for the Hall of Fame?

That remains to be seen.

The hip injury that brought a premature end to Belle's impressive career also prevented him from making an indisputable case for induction into Cooperstown.

He was on the way to 500 home runs and 1,600 RBIs. He could have carved his own Hall of Fame with another three or four healthy seasons, but the injury forced him to do something that Belle -- of all contemporary players -- did not want to do: leave it in the hands of the baseball writers he battled with throughout his career.

The rules for induction allow voters to take into consideration virtually every aspect of a player's career, including something grade-school teachers used to call citizenship. Belle, the son of two schoolteachers, can only hope that five years is long enough to make everyone forget that he didn't play well with others.

No marquee player since Ty Cobb had such a long and consistent record of irascible behavior, but the Hall of Fame is full of guys who tested the limits of acceptable conduct. How much the Belle dislikeability factor figures in his chances for induction will be determined individually by the approximately 500 writers who will vote for the Hall of Fame Class of 2006.

Some will look entirely at his impressive playing record. Some will dismiss him out of hand for reasons of character. Most figure to try and strike a balance between the two poles of a very complicated player.

"No, I will not vote for Albert Belle," said former Detroit Tigers beat writer Steve Kornacki. "While he had an impact, it was not for long enough. And he certainly didn't endear himself to me and most voters, nor was he a good ambassador for the game. I saw him curse an 80-year-old lady who wanted an autograph. What a surly guy. Just the worst guy I ever saw."

No one disputes that Belle was a hard guy to like. His legendary temper got him in trouble during his collegiate career at LSU and got him suspended three times in the minor leagues before the Cleveland Indians brought him to the majors for good in 1991.

He was suspended for at least part of his first four full seasons. He fired a baseball into the chest of a fan. He tried to do the same to a Sports Illustrated photographer. He was caught with a corked bat. He was fined $50,000 for an obscenity-laced tirade at television sportscaster Hannah Storm during the 1995 World Series.

What's not to like?

"One of the qualifications in Hall of Fame balloting is character, and Belle was so miserable that I think you have to take that into account," said longtime baseball writer Scott Miller. "I'm not saying you have to be a choirboy to get into the Hall, but come on. Belle antagonized so many fans, writers and those on the periphery of stadiums and the games, that his demeanor certainly becomes a factor."

By the same token, it is impossible to deny that he was truly a great run-producer. Belle's string of eight straight seasons with at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs was matched or exceeded by only Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx. That's some pretty impressive Hall of Fame company.

"I haven't really looked at it, but from what I've seen, the names he's been mentioned with, he's done things that are comparable to players in the Hall of Fame," said New York Mets superstar and potential Hall of Famer Mike Piazza. "I think that there is no question that he should be considered on his pure numbers. He's got to be given consideration. The guy has some controversial issues, but you have to look at what he's accomplished on the field."

Belle did earn the respect -- and sometimes the fear -- of his fellow major-league players, but former players have no say in the Hall of Fame selection process until a candidate falls off the BBWAA ballot and becomes eligible for veterans committee consideration. That could be 25 years from now.

For the foreseeable future, Belle will have to depend on the good nature and thick skin of the baseball writers he held in such low regard for most of his career.

"He probably is [a Hall of Famer], but not on my first ballot," said New York-area beat writer Kit Stier, "because I put stock in whether a guy was a negative guy. He's not going in on my first ballot -- and maybe not my second, third or fourth, but I think he's worthy of strong consideration."

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