By Vince Guerrieri
For a time, he was Cleveland’s most famous recovering alcoholic.
He was a baseball player who could hit anything, be it a ball or a middle infielder with the occasional forearm shiver.
He was Joey. Now he’s Albert. And Tuesday, he was back in spring training with the Indians.
Albert Belle left Cleveland after the 1996 season for the division rival White Sox. He never got to the postseason again – but the Indians, who made it to the 1997 World Series and won the division for three of the next four years after that, were never really the same team after that.
Belle was regarded as a focused and consistently punishing hitter, having hit 30 home runs and 100 RBI for eight straight years. He was also regarded as an angry, downright mean person, swearing at reporters, taking a bat to the clubhouse thermostat and chasing down kids who egged his house. He wasn’t feared as a hitter. He was just feared.
But the Belle who appeared in Goodyear was a little grayer – and it seemed a little more mellow. He’s now a stay-at-home dad to four girls in Arizona, and was invited to spring training by former teammates Carlos Baerga and Kenny Lofton, to try to mend some fences.
Belle made appearances at Jacobs Field after his departure as an opposing player for the White Sox and Orioles, but this is his first interaction with the Indians since he left. He didn’t consider it a mending fences trip, he said. He bore them no ill will, and figured they felt the same.
“I wish we could’ve stayed together,” Belle said. “It just didn’t work out.”
He made his major league debut in 1989, when the Indians were in the doldrums in old Municipal Stadium. He was regarded as a talented but high-risk prospect out of Louisiana State University, and was one of the shrewd draft picks the Indians made in the late 1980s and early 1990s, including Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez. Thome is almost a sure-fire hall of famer, Ramirez would be were it not for his performance-enhancing drug problems and bizarre antics, and Belle?
Well, he finished his career with a .295 average and 381 home runs. He remains to date the only player ever to have 50 home runs and 50 doubles in a season, which he did in the Tribe’s pennant year of 1995 – and in a 144-game shortened season because of the strike. That season, he was the Baseball Digest and Sporting News player of the year, but the Baseball Writers Association of America voted Mo Vaughn as the MVP. The BBWAA also votes on Hall of Fame inductees. Belle got 7.7 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility, and stayed on the ballot for another year. He got 3.9 percent that year, and dropped off the ballot. His only hope for induction is the veterans’ committee.
But Belle was known as a conscientious student of the game, and a highly prepared hitter. His appearance at spring training will hopefully allow some of that to rub off on Indians players.
Photo: Jordan Bastian/MLB.com