SITTING IN A BOOTH AT BEEF O'Brady's, munching a line-up of cheeseburgers and lemonades, Albert Belle is the picture of contentment. Another day of spring training here in central Florida and someone else is picking up the tab. Baseball's worst problem child and best slugger is explaining how he's going to have a different image this year. In 1996, the spotlight's going to be on "62"--can he hit the most home runs ever in a season? There'll be no more run-ins with reporters, fans, pitchers, coaches, umpires, commissioners. "I'm working on how I deal with people," Belle says, adding, with a hint of mischief, "Am I going to be on the cover of your magazine?"
But all of a sudden radar picks up the enemy approaching on the left flank. They're . . . people. And they're going to intrude on my feeding time! It's an eighty-something couple with a baseball in hand. "We're from Cleveland," says the old man, earnestly pointing to his Indians cap. "We drove all the way down to see you play." Without making eye contact, without missing a chew, Belle scrawls his name on the ball and turns away for mustard. The couple departs. "How f---ing rude," Belle mutters. "Can't they see I'm eating?"
Welcome to the brain of Albert Belle, the 29-year-old left fielder for the Indians and the strangest personality in the game. We know about the rest of his 6-foot-2 body--those Popeye forearms and the steel torso that generate titanic power and have helped him hit more homers the past five years than any other major leaguer. In 1995 he became the first player to reach 50 homers and 50 doubles in a season; not even Babe Ruth accomplished that. But what's going on inside that tempestuous head--what makes every opponent an enemy, every at-bat a confrontation?
To his detractors, Belle is angry, surly, bullying and, well, as he might put it, "rude." To his defenders, he's merely a perfectionist, private, principled, focused, intense. Like the time at LSU when a bee was buzzing around his head during batting practice. As the pitcher delivered, Belle swatted the bee with his left hand and swung away with his right. The ball wound up over the fence. Nobody works harder studying pitchers and tweaking his swing. Okay, he won't win the Mr. Congeniality Award, friends acknowledge, but he has as much fun as the happy-faced phonies who populate the game. Hometown fans give him standing ovations all the time at the ballpark. And Belle's extensive charity work and big donations back home in Cleveland and Shreveport, La.--all unpublicized--prove he's a good person. "In a foxhole, I'll take Albert," says Indians general manager John Hart, "but you're wasting your time if you're trying to figure him out." There's nothing in Belle's background to explain his temperament. He grew up in a middle-class family (both parents are teachers) and his twin brother is a successful financial analyst.
Choose whatever adjectives you like; there's no mistaking his unusual behavior on and off the field. From 1991 to 1994, he was suspended by the American League once per season. His rap sheet: charging the mound after an opposing pitcher (twice), using a corked bat and throwing a ball in the chest of a heckling fan ("He asked if he could have it"). In 1990 he spent 58 days in rehab for a drinking problem. Before that, he tore up a locker room with a bat; teammates gave him the nickname "Snapper," and it wasn't because of his lawn-care skills. There's also the bar fight, the fan he chased for making racial insults, the press conference he missed for his own chocolate bar in Cleveland and the time he tried to run down some Halloween vandals with his Ford Explorer. It's a wonder he has any energy left for belting a fast ball.
And then there's the Hannah Storm incident. Before Game 3 of last year's World Series, Belle accosted the NBC sportscaster in the dugout. Explanations differ: (1) he was just mad so many reporters were invading his turf and she got the brunt of it, (2) she went out of her way to annoy him, (3) he thought she was Lesley Visser from ABC (yes, that would explain it). In any event, Belle unleashed a tirade of profanities against Storm that made headlines. "It was controversial because everyone just wants to dwell on my negatives," Belle says. "You'd have thought I was an ax murderer." Acting baseball commissioner Bud Selig did. He penalized Belle $50,000 for his verbal barrage, the largest fine ever against a player (though a pittance of his $5.5 million salary). Others have behaved badly with the press and not even received a reprimand. Belle was paying for his history.
His conduct costs him even more with the sportswriters, with whom he's never gotten along. They got the last laugh last year by denying him the American League's Most Valuable Player award. Belle deserved it, but the writers voted the honor to Mo Vaughn of the Boston Red Sox, who had a lower batting average and slugging percentage, as well as fewer home runs. Vaughn's edge? He's a model citizen. Belle is honest: he admits disappointment for losing the MVP. He's smart, too: he recognizes that a better disposition will get him better clippings and the sneaker endorsements he wants.
But there seems to be circuitry missing between the neurons -- unless he's simply putting us on. Ask him how he'd behave with Storm in the same situation? "I'd do it all over again," he says, rather proudly. Wasn't there a polite way to ask her to leave the dugout? Aren't manners important, just like with those old folks in the Florida burgery who bothered you? "That's different. They invaded my privacy."
Wouldn't it still have been a good idea to maintain at least a facade of civility with Storm? "The Indians wanted me to issue a statement of regret when the fine was announced. But I told them to take it out. I apologize for nothing."
In fact, the Indians' statement kept in the alleged quote from Belle anyway. It's exactly that kind of pretense that brings him to full boil. He wants you and me and the suits at the Wheaties Corp. to judge him only on what he does on the diamond. Watch Albert launch those moonshots into the bleachers. Root for 62. Then leave him alone and, whatever you do, don't ask for an autograph--or a smile.