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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

Of course, there are precedents for the induction of players whose career numbers have been suppressed by a career-ending injury, one of them this year.

Minnesota Twins star Kirby Puckett was forced to retire after 12 seasons because he lost the sight of one eye to glaucoma, but he was elected by a comfortable margin in the latest Hall of Fame election with career numbers that are comparable in many ways with Belle's. He'll be inducted along with Dave Winfield, Bill Mazeroski and Negro Leaguer Hilton Smith on Aug. 5 at Cooperstown.

"If Kirby Puckett gets in and you compare the numbers, they have similar numbers, and Kirby gets in," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. "I do think that Albert has had a career that should rate Hall of Fame consideration."

It really comes down to this: You can make basically the same argument in favor of Belle that voters made on behalf of Puckett. Great numbers over a limited timespan. The real issue, however, is whether voters will be motivated to give Belle the same consideration.

"His case is comparable to Kirby Puckett's in that his career was ended prematurely," Miller said. "For me, though, Puckett excelled in all areas of the game -- he hit for average, for power, was terrific defensively and ran the bases with abandon. Plus, he lifted his team to two World Series titles. Belle was one-dimensional -- he hit, and that was it -- and never lifted his team to the next level."

Puckett was a much-loved character who led the small-market Twins to two world titles in a five-year period. Voters got all warm and fuzzy just thinking about him.

Belle has to hope voters will overcome their personal animosity toward him long enough to give his great numbers a fair hearing. Right now, a lot of them don't seem inclined to do that.

"The parallel is Jim Rice, both statistically and impact-wise," said Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell, "but Belle is over a period in which statistics were 15 percent higher, and Rice is having a heckuva time getting in. So, whatever Jim Rice's chances are -- and I vote for him -- Belle's chances are somewhat less."

Rice provides a good parallel for another reason. He also had a terrible relationship with the press during his impressive career with the Boston Red Sox. In seven years on the ballot, he has polled respectably but never come within 20 percentage points of the 75 percent of the vote necessary for election.

"To me, Belle's a very tough decision," Boston Herald baseball writer Tony Massarotti said. "His numbers are very similar to those of Jim Rice, who seems to be progressing towards a Hall induction. Both were also very durable players. But for whatever reason, my instinct with Albert is to say no. I'm not sure if it's because he never won an MVP -- which Rice did -- or because he put up his numbers in a more inflated offensive era."

Longtime New York Newsday writer Marty Noble agrees that Belle's offensive numbers are the product of the "juiced ball" era that has spawned 12 50-homer performances since 1990.

"My sense is no," Noble said. "I hear people comparing him with guys like Babe Ruth, but when Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs, everybody else was hitting four. When Albert Belle was hitting 50 home runs, everybody was hitting 50 home runs."

The early returns don't look good for Belle, but this was just a small sampling of the 500-plus ballots that will be cast in the 2006 Hall of Fame election. And it was far from unanimous.

"I proudly received my first Hall of Fame ballot this year," Cincinnati Reds beat writer Chris Haft said. "I'm aware that I might not so proudly cast some ballots in the future. This could be one of them. Albert Belle embodies few, if any, of baseball's positive, feel-good elements ... except that he has been a heck of a player for a prolonged period. I'm forced to say that, to be truly fair, I'd have to vote for him for the Hall."

Belle at a glance

Belle played in 1,539 games with a .295 career batting average with 381 home runs and 1,239 RBIs.

He finished with at least 100 RBIs in nine straight seasons, the fourth-longest streak in baseball history.

He played in six World Series games, batting .235 with two home runs and four RBIs.

Year-by-year

2000: Finished with 103 RBIs for Orioles. Batted .248 in his final 65 games. 1999: Finished with decade-best 1,099 RBIs. In first season with Orioles, had eighth straight season with 30 or more home runs and 100 or more RBIs.

1998: Finished in top three of Triple Crown categories and among leaders in 11 of 14 major offensive categories. Broke White Sox single-season records with 49 home runs, 152 RBIs, 48 doubles, 399 total bases and 99 extra-base hits.

1997: Placed seventh in the American League with 311 total bases, marking the third straight season and fourth in last five years that he totaled over 300 total bases. Third among leaders in doubles with 45.

1996: Led the American League in RBIs for a second straight season and third time in his career with 148. RBI total was second-highest single-season total in Cleveland franchise history.

1995: Hit a career-high and Cleveland franchise-record 50 home runs in 143 games (season shortened due to labor dispute). Became first player in major-league history to hit 50 home runs and 50 doubles in a season.

1994: Finished third in AL Most Valuable Player balloting behind Frank Thomas and Ken Griffey Jr. Ranked among the AL top three in 10 offensive categories.

1993: Led the league with 129 RBIs. Hit his 20th home run on June 22, becoming the first American Leaguer to reach that mark in '93.

1992: Topped the Indians in home runs and RBIs for the second straight season.

1991: Led Cleveland in homers (28), RBIs (95), doubles (31) and slugging percentage (.540).

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