Today continues our countdown to the start of Indians pitchers and catchers reporting to Goodyear, Arizona on February 20. We’ll count down the days, profiling a former Indian who wore the corresponding number. Some players will be memorable, others just our favorites and some, the only one we could find who wore that number. Today, we chronicle the career of Albert Belle.
By Craig Gifford
Albert Belle had as surly a demeanor as anyone could have. However, fans of the Cleveland Indians were able to look past that the first eight years of his career as he hammered the ball like few before him and few since on the shores of Lake Erie.
In those eight seasons with the Indians, the team with whom Belle broke into the majors in 1989, the masher nailed 242 home runs and batted .295. He was a major cog in the 1995 World Series club and helped the Tribe to the postseason in 1996.
No one in Cleveland will soon forget Belle’s epic 1995 campaign when he became the only Indian to ever enjoy a 50/50 season. In a season condensed to 144 games due to a players strike wiping out the first month, Belle still slammed 50 home runs and 52 doubles. Both numbers led the American League, as did his 126 RBI. With a .317 batting average, Belle nearly had a Triple Crown season. Despite the near-historic season, Belled finished second behind Mo Vaughn in the MVP voting. That is largely due to Belle’s unwillingness to talk to the media, the people who vote on the postseason awards. The media despised Belle, which almost makes it a testament that he finished that highly in voting.
The 1995 postseason, in which the Tribe eventually fell to the Braves in Game 6 of the World Series, saw one of the more memorable images of Belle. In 1994, Belle had been suspended for using a corked bat. In the first round of the ’95 Division Season against Boston, the Red Sox asked umpires to confiscate Belle’s bat to check for cork. TV cameras caught Belle flexing, pointing to his muscle and pointing out that to be the only cork he needed. He was right, as the bat was found to be clean. Belle’s surly attitude clearly cost him one MVP trophy and possibly two more. He finished third for the prized award in 1994 and 1996. That 1996 season turned out to be his last in Cleveland.
Belle was a free agent at year’s end. Unlike Jim Thome years later, Belle made no bones about wanting to be highly paid, no matter who ponied up. He became the first in a long line of great Indians players to leave for greener pastures. Belle signed with Cleveland’s division rival White Sox in November 1996. He was given a then-record, five-year, $55 million deal.
Upon Belle’s departure, Indians fans soon forgot all the home runs and four All-Star Game appearances, seeing Belle as the rest of the league saw him – surly, arrogant, greedy and not a very nice guy. He was booed lustily on each return visit to Jacobs Field. After two strong seasons in Chicago, including what is still a White Sox record 49 home runs in 1998, fans of the South Side Bombers soon saw what Tribe fans did in terms of Belle’s greed. The contract he signed after the 1996 season had an out clause after two years if he was not one of the top three highest paid players in the game. He invoked the clause, the White Sox refused to give him more money and he became a free agent. He signed with Baltimore in December 1996, again becoming the league’s highest paid player (five years, $65 million).
Belle enjoyed another strong two years with Orioles and at 33 was putting up numbers that the writers would one day not be able to overlook when it came time to consider Belle for Cooperstown. However, the 2000 season, Belle’s worst since his rookie year of 1989, saw the slugger develop degenerative osteoarthritis in his hip. The condition became so bad, Belle was never able to play again. He hit a home run in what turned out to be the last at bat of his career on October 1, 2000. It was the 381st of an electric, memorable, but abbreviated career.
With another five seasons, there is little doubt Belle would have topped 500 home runs. With no hard evidence that Belle was among the many users of the Steroid Era, Hall of Fame voters would have been hard pressed to keep him out, despite their dislike for the man, himself. Perhaps Belle’s career-ending injury saved a lot of people from a very tough decision. It also robbed baseball fans of seeing just how high one of the greatest hitters of 1990s could take his numbers. He may have been a surly Albert Belle, but for eight glorious years, Cleveland fans could always say, “He’s our Albert Belle!”
Photo: Getty Images