The Greatest Summer Ever: Albert Belle

Throughout the 2015 season, Did the Tribe Win Last Night will take a look back at the 1995 Cleveland Indians for the 20th anniversary of their fourth pennant winning season. Included will be historic game recaps, headlining stories and a ranking of the team’s most influential players that truly made 1995 The Greatest Summer Ever. Today looks back at player #1 Albert Belle.

November 19, 1996 was a black eye kind of day for Cleveland fans.  It was a punch in the gut, kick in the nuts, stab in the back kind of day.  It was the day that the Indians best player, Albert Belle, skipped out of town and signed with the Chicago White Sox for a record-breaking contract that paid him $10 million each year.  Albert became the first player in Major League history to make eight figures in his yearly salary.

When Belle left, it was a terrible blow to the city of Cleveland.  Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome both bolted Cleveland for greener pastures (and greener wallets) in the years that followed, but the Indians weren’t nearly as good then.  When Belle left, the Indians were coming off of back to back 100 and 99 win seasons.  They were in the World Series only a year prior and were still considered by most to be the best team in baseball.  When Ramirez and Thome left the town hurt, but nothing stung as bad as Belle leaving until LeBron James left the Cavaliers over a dozen years later.

It’s not as if Belle’s huge contract wasn’t well deserved though.  Albert was one of the best players in the game and probably the best hitter in Indians franchise history.  He had won homerun titles and RBI titles and nobody in baseball was more feared than Albert when he had a bat in his hands.

Belle would hold the bat out in front of his body as if he was holding a club.  He would have his mammoth arms flexed showing every gigantic muscle in his forearms that made American League pitchers quiver on the mound.  He would glare an ice-cold stare out to the mound that told the world that Albert Belle was at bat, that he was better than you, and that he could kick your ass.

“Any good lineup has to have a legitimate four-hole hitter in it,” Indians manager Mike Hargrove said.  “Albert had the ability to totally concentrate on what was going on.  He knew the pitcher.  He was prepared to hit and he had great concentration on doing his job.  I always felt good when Albert was at the plate.  I knew that the chances of something good happening were a lot greater than with anybody else we had…even with guys like (Kenny) Lofton, (Sandy) Alomar, Eddie Murray and those guys.  Albert had the ability to really make the moment count and more times than not, he helped us.”

Belle was awesome.  He was about as clutch of a hitter as there ever has been in the game of baseball.  In 1996 for the Tribe, he drove in 148 runs.  In ’94, Belle batted a career best .357.  In ’93, Belle led the American League in RBI for the first of three times over a four year stretch.  Finally, in 1995, Belle had the best season of his career, and probably the best season that an Indians hitter has ever had.

Belle made the 1995 All-Star team because he was voted in by the fans.  The funny thing is that Belle really wasn’t having that great of a season (for Albert Belle standards) up to that point.  He was hitting the ball well, batting at a .312 clip with 51 RBI heading into the Mid-Summer Classic, but the thunderous power wasn’t really there.  Belle only had 14 homeruns for the season, but it really didn’t make much difference for the team because just about everyone else in the lineup was dropping bombs.  Belle blasted his 15th homer of the season in a July 16 win over Oakland, but two days later Belle hit his biggest one of the year.

July 18 was a warm Tuesday night on the shore of Lake Erie and Jacobs Field hosted a game that matched up the two best teams in the American League; the Cleveland Indians and the California Angels.  The Angels took the first of the two game series the night before, but still felt as if they were living in the shadow of the Tribe.  “The media makes them out to be unbeatable,” said Angels designated hitter Chili Davis in a 1995 article from the Los Angeles Times.  “They’re a good team, but so are we…We’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘You guys have played well but you haven’t played Cleveland yet.’  That’s unfair to us.  We’re not saying we’re better than Cleveland–they’re awesome.  But to all the people who doubt us, who think we’re a fluke, shut up.  We can play.”

Not only were the Indians facing a first place Angels with a chip on their shoulder, but their ace pitcher Mark Langston as well.  The Tribe countered with starting pitcher Mark Clark, who had an outstanding 1994 season, but had struggled mightily throughout ’95.

Neither of the two starters had great command to start the game, as both Clark and Langston worked their way in and out of trouble for the first couple innings.  Clark allowed the first batter of the game, Tony Phillips, to reach first on a strikeout/wild pitch.  Phillips then stole second base on a pitch that centerfielder Jim Edmonds struck out on, and was moved to third on a Tim Salmon groundout.  The situation was Clark’s season in a nutshell, as the big right hander had retired the first three batters of the game but still was in a first inning jam with a runner on third.  Angels’ DH Chili Davis, in his first at bat off of the disabled list, nearly drove Phillips home with a sinking line drive to left, but Belle was able to make a nice catch and retire the side.

Langston was able to work around an Omar Vizquel double in the bottom of the first, and Clark skated past back to back one out singles in the top of the second.  Langston again allowed a runner to reach scoring position in the bottom half, but the runner, Manny Ramirez, was stranded when Sandy Alomar grounded out to third.

After playing with fire through the first two frames, Clark was finally burned in the top of the third.  Leading off an inning for the second time in the game, Phillips launched Clark’s 2-0 pitch into the right field seats for a homerun and a 1-0 Angels lead.  Langston, meanwhile, had settled in and kept the Tribe scoreless.

California added to its lead in the top of the fifth, when Clark again surrendered the long ball—this time to Edmonds with Angels catcher Jorge Fabregas on base.  The score was now 3-0 in favor of the Halos and the Tribe looked to string some hits together in the bottom half of the fifth.

The inning started out innocently, as Alomar grounded out to third to lead off with out number one.  A barrage of singles followed.

Third baseman Alvaro Espinoza, who was starting in place of Jim Thome because of the left handed Langston, started the rally with a line drive single to left.  Ruben Amaro followed with another line drive single, this time to centerfield.  With runners at first and second, Vizquel smoked a line drive to left that hung up and was caught by Angels’ rookie Garret Anderson for the second out.  Then, Carlos Baerga laced another ball to left, but this one dropped in front of Anderson and scored Espinoza to cut the Angels lead to 3-1.  With Amaro now at second and Baerga at first, the clutch Belle grounded the Indians fourth single of the inning back up the middle to drive home Amaro and cut the lead to one.  Not finished yet, Ramirez followed with another line drive single to left, bringing home Baerga and tying the score at 3-3.  When the inning ended on a Herbert Perry lineout, the Tribe had scored three runs on five hits in the inning, all of which were singles.  But after all of the hard work that the Indian offense did in the fifth, Clark gave the Angels nearly all of the runs back in the sixth.

First baseman J.T. Snow grounded a one out single in the sixth off of Clark and brought the rookie Anderson to the plate.  Anderson was in the midst of a terrific rookie season and at this point was the favorite to take home AL Rookie of the Year honors (Anderson finished in an extremely close second place to the Twins Marty Cordova).  Anderson worked the count full on Clark before continuing his fantastic year by crushing a towering homerun into the right field stands.  It was the third homerun of the game that Clark had surrendered, and the Angels now held a 5-3 lead.  Clark was replaced by reliever Eric Plunk to start the seventh inning.

Both Langston and Plunk seemed to be battling each other for the rest of the evening as neither the Angel starter nor Indian reliever allowed a base runner from the bottom of the sixth through the top of the eighth.  After walking Belle to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning, however, Langston was replaced in favor of the California bullpen.  It took John Habyan, Bob Patterson and Troy Percival to strand Belle and set the Indians down scoreless in the inning, but the score remained 5-3 in favor of California heading into the ninth.

Paul Assenmacher relieved Plunk for the top of the ninth and worked the bullpen’s third consecutive 1-2-3 inning.  Because of a fantastic night for both Plunk and Assenmacher, the Angels sent nine men to the plate against Indian relievers and all nine were set down in order.  The Indians hoped that their awesome bullpen had set the stage for some more ninth inning Jacobs Field magic.

The Indians had come from behind to win in their last at bat 13 times already in 1995 and were going to have a tall order if they were going to make it 14.  The Angels closer was one of baseball’s all-time greats, career save leader Lee Smith.  The veteran Smith was in the middle of a solid season, having saved 22 games and only having blown two leads.

Backup outfielder Wayne Kirby came in to pinch hit for Espinoza to lead off the bottom of the ninth.  After taking a first pitch strike, Kirby bounced a grounder toward the slick fielding Snow at first.  The ball took a bad hop on Snow, and dribbled past him for an infield single to start the rally.  Manager Mike Hargrove went back to his bench again, this time pinch hitting Thome for Amaro.  In a season filled with clutch hits for the young infielder, Jimmy was unable to come through this time as Smith struck Thome out swinging on five pitches.

With one out, Vizquel came to the plate and worked the count to 2-2 before lining a drive toward Angel shortstop Gary Disarcina.  DiSarcina leapt high in the air and the ball skipped off of the very top of the webbing on his glove and scooted into left field.  Alertly, Kirby scrambled all the way to third on the Tribe’s lucky break.

With the tying run at first and the possible winning run at the plate, Baerga dug in to face the Angels intimidating closer.  Perhaps in a case of “pick your poison”, Smith walked Baerga on four pitches, loading the bases for Belle.  As ball four skipped into the catcher Fabregas, Baerga flipped his bat toward the Tribe dugout, pumped his fists and yelled for Albert to win the game.

Belle strode to the plate as the sound of bells chimed over the loudspeakers and the 41,763 sellout crowd rose to their feet.  Belle glared his menacing glare out at Smith and took two practice swings before he dug into the box as he did before each pitch that was about to come to him.  Belle and Smith battled each other to a 1-2 count before Smith threw Albert a hanging slider.

Belle took advantage of the bad pitch and blasted it toward deep centerfield.  Albert had hit the ball so hard that it kept rising and rising until it cleared the fence in dead centerfield.  The game had had an “October-feel” to it, and the playoff-starved fans went bonkers as Belle raised his fist in jubilation as he high fived first base coach Dave Nelson on his way around the bases.  He took his trademark stutter-steps before reaching each base, and when Albert reached home plate he found his teammates ready to mob him.  Shocked, the Angels walked off of the field, perhaps convinced that 1995 did indeed belong to the Tribe.

It was the biggest win of the regular season for the Indians and it came in the most dramatic fashion possible.  A win would have given the Angels a sweep in the Tribe’s ballpark and possibly turned the tides in the American League.  Belle’s blast indeed proved as a turning point for both teams, as California went into a free-fall for the rest of the season and the Tribe knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that this was their year.

The walk off grand slam was the first in Cleveland since Carlos Martinez blasted a two out salami off of Seattle’s Mike Schooler at the old stadium in 1992.  It was also the second walk off grand slam given up B. Smith in 1995, who gave up his first to Oakland’s Mark McGwire less than three weeks earlier.  Smith became only the third pitcher in history to “accomplish” this feat, the first two being the Cubs Lindy McDaniel in 1963 and former Indian great Satchel Paige in 1952 during a season with the St. Louis Browns.  The New York Mets Francisco Rodriguez would become the fourth in 2009.

As it turned out, Belle’s season was really only getting started.  The grand slam off of Smith was only Albert’s 16th homerun of the season, but there were plenty more where that came from.

Belle went on a hitting tear the likes of which Cleveland had never seen before and has not seen since for the remainder of the season.  Albert crushed three more homeruns in the month of July, 13 in August and tied Babe Ruth’s record by hitting a tremendous 17 in September.  On the final two days in August, Belle hit walk-off homeruns in back to back games against the Toronto Blue Jays.  There was a stretch during the month of September where Albert hit 10 homeruns in seven games, highlighted by back to back nights in Chicago where he hit two and then three the next night.  Albert Belle simply had one of the finest, most amazing stretches of homerun hitting in baseball history, and he finished the season with a then-franchise record 50.

To add a cherry on the top of Albert’s 50 dingers, Belle also chipped in 52 doubles and one triple.  His 103 extra base hits ranked fourth in baseball history at the time and currently ranks tied for sixth.  Belle sits only behind Babe Ruth (119 in 1921), Lou Gehrig (117 in 1927), Barry Bonds (107 in 2001), Chuck Klein (107 in 1930) and Todd Helton (105 in 2001).  Albert became the first and remains the only player ever to hit 50 doubles and 50 homeruns in the same season.

Belle was not all or nothing throughout 1995 either.  Albert hit a superb .317 for the season, scored 121 runs and stole five bases.  Belle led the league in doubles, homeruns, slugging percentage, total bases and finished tied with Boston’s Mo Vaughn with 126 RBI.  In perhaps the biggest sham of baseball’s award history, Belle finished second to Vaughn in the American League MVP voting despite having better numbers in nearly every measurable category.

Belle’s torrid pace did not roll over into the playoffs, but Albert was still a key part of the Indians run to the pennant.  After blasting a clutch, game tying homerun in the first game of the postseason against Boston, Belle struggled a bit to stay hot.  An injury that was suffered during the ALCS and the fact that he was pitched around basically the entire month certainly played a large factor into Belle’s struggles.  Albert batted only .239 for the playoffs, but did manage to hit four homeruns and drive in eight.  Belle was also walked 18 times during the ’95 postseason.

Belle once again put up out-worldly numbers during the 1996 season.  For the third year in a row, Albert finished in the top three in the AL MVP voting.  In ’96, Belle batted .311 with 48 homeruns and 148 RBI to once again lead the 99 win Indians to the postseason, but his production was always taken with a grain of salt as his looming free agency hung over the city like a black cloud.  The Indians were shocked by Baltimore and eliminated in the first round of the postseason, but Albert supplied one last hurrah with a thrilling grand slam off of the Orioles Armando Benitez that gave the Tribe their only victory of the ’96 playoffs.  The grand slam wound up serving as a final farewell to the city of Cleveland, as Belle bolted for Chicago during the offseason.

For the next two seasons, Belle continued to put up outstanding numbers for the White Sox.  He was an All-Star both years that he played for the Pale Hose and finished eighth in the MVP voting in 1998.  Any time that Albert returned to Cleveland, he was greeted with a chorus of boos and swears as the loyal Tribe fans tried their hardest to stick it to their greedy, former-hero.  Fake money would shower down on Belle from the homerun porch in left field when Belle would take his position in the outfield.

After ’98, Belle signed another lucrative free agent deal, this time with the Baltimore Orioles.  Albert spent two years in Baltimore and put up very solid numbers in the process.  Unfortunately for Belle and the Orioles, Albert injured his hip during the 2000 season and his remarkable career was cut short because of it.

Albert Belle finished his short 12 year playing career with a .295 batting average, 381 homeruns and 1,239 RBI.  He has thus far been rejected for the Baseball Hall of Fame, but his numbers indicate that he could possibly be inducted one day.

Since retiring, Belle has really stayed out of the spotlight.  He currently resides in Arizona and is raising three kids.  Belle said in an interview with The Plain Dealer that he is “”enjoying the retirement life and trying to decide what I want to do next. Maybe one of these days, I’ll get back into baseball, but for now [I’m] just raising a family.”

In 2012, the Indians reconnected with Belle for the first time since his playing days, as Belle visited the club during Spring Training in Goodyear, Arizona.  He also visited Jacobs Field and the Cleveland area for the first time to help celebrate Carlos Baerga bobblehead day in June.

It is a great thing for the fans of the Cleveland Indians that Belle is working to reunite with his old team.  If Albert does ever get inducted into the Hall of Fame, he will certainly don an Indians cap on his plaque and it just wouldn’t have been right to hear boos when he walked up to the podium to give his acceptance speech.  Sure, Albert Belle was a bit surly, agitated, angry, unpleasant, or whatever you want to call him, but he was awesome—and he was ours.  Whether you forgive him or not for leaving, there is no denying that Belle was the best player in the world on the best team in the world during the magical 1995 season and what truly was the greatest summer ever.

Previous Entries:
#26 Dave Winfield
#25 Mark Clark
#24 Wayne Kirby
#23 Alan Embree
#22 Alvaro Espinoza
#21 Herbert Perry
#20 Ken Hill
#19 Jim Poole
#18 Chad Ogea
#17 Sandy Alomar
#16 Tony Pena
#15 Eric Plunk
#14 Paul Sorrento
#13 Paul Assenmacher
#12 Omar Vizquel
#11 Charles Nagy
#10 Orel Hershiser
#9 Julian Tavarez
#8 Eddie Murray
#7 Jim Thome
#6 Dennis Martinez
#5 Carlos Baerga
#4 Kenny Lofton
#3 Manny Ramirez
#2 Jose Mesa

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. This was so great! I read it all. Forgot about some of the unsung heroes of that season. I miss that team, and Albert Belle!

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