GOODYEAR, ARIZ: For the eight years he spent with the Indians, Albert Belle was the perfect storm of stunning offensive talent and smoldering anger that manifested itself in clubhouse tantrums, strained media relations and off-field incidents that included hitting a fan in the chest with a baseball at old Cleveland Stadium.
Now graying, with the bearing of a prosperous banker and dressed in a beige sweater and slacks, Belle on Tuesday made friendly contact for the first time in 15 years with the team that brought him to the big leagues.
The reunion was arranged Bob DiBiasio, the club’s senior vice president of public affairs, plus Belle’s former teammates Kenny Lofton and Carlos Baerga, who are tutoring players during training camp.
Belle, 45, spends his time at the golf course and being “Mr. Mom” to his four daughters in nearby Paradise Valley, Ariz.
Except for playing in 21 games against the Indians as a member of the Chicago White Sox and Baltimore Orioles from 1997 through 2000, Belle has had little to do with Cleveland or the Tribe since he left via free agency after the 1996 season.
The only time he returned to Northeast Ohio “was a few years ago to play golf,” he said. “That was about it. Pretty much the only time I leave here is for a golf trip.”
Belle doesn’t think his relationship with the franchise is fractured.
“I think the fences are already mended,” Belle said. “That was a long time ago. The thing about free agency is that it’s going to create some bad feelings. I would have liked to play with those guys for five or 10 more years. It just didn’t work out that way.”
In the winter of 1996, Belle signed a five-year deal with the White Sox worth $56.87 million, briefly making him the highest paid player in baseball. Indians General Manager John Hart believed Belle had become too much trouble to keep, despite his huge numbers, and offered him no more than $8 million a year, knowing Belle would refuse.
When he was with the Tribe, Belle terrorized opposing pitchers. Following his first two seasons as a part-time player, Belle averaged 36 doubles, 39 home runs, 119 RBI and batted .300 for the next six seasons.
The apex of his career came in 1995, a season shortened to 144 games because of labor problems. Despite the abbreviated schedule, Belle led the American League with 52 doubles, 50 home runs, 126 RBI and 121 runs. He also compiled the league’s No. 1 slugging percentage (.690), batted .317 and posted an on-base percentage of .401.
“Maybe when another American League player has 100 extra-base hits in a season, I’ll get recognized,” said Belle, who had 103 extra-base hits that year.
“I played with the most hard-working guys I ever saw in my life,” Baerga said. “Albert and Manny [Ramirez] were hitting all the time. Someone would say, ‘Where’s Albert?’ He was always in the batting cage.”
The Tribe’s 1995 lineup is arguably one of the most fearsome in history, an intimidating team that thought it should win every game and did win 100.
“Intimidating? You mean ugly?” Baerga said, teasing Belle.
“What made us intimidating is that we had some brawls,” Belle said. “Our pitchers protected us. It’s a different story today. Justin Upton got hit something like 16 times. Ain’t no way [that should happen]. But it’s a different game now.”
In the clubhouse and away from the field, Belle’s volatile personality led him to destroy a thermostat with a bat, throw a ball at a photographer, sideswipe a teenager on Halloween with his SUV and smack a drunk heckler at a sports bar with a pingpong paddle. Does Belle have any regrets?
“I look back, and I would do it all over again,” he said. “I had a nice career; I wish I could have played longer, but I’m happy the way things worked out.”
Belle’s hall of fame credentials would be impeccable if his career hadn’t been cut short because of a problem with his right hip that eventually required surgery and forced him to retire during spring training of 2001, when he was with the Orioles.
The hip required a second operation, and Belle soon will undergo surgery on his left hip.
Belle’s relationship with the media was always edgy, another possible factor in his name disappearing from the hall of fame ballot so quickly (a player must receive at least 5 percent of the vote to remain a candidate).
“I talked to the media,” Belle said, smiling. “They just didn’t like the words I was saying.”
These days, Belle spends his time at home and on the golf course.
“I’m a stay-at-home dad, raising my kids,” he said. “I thought about getting back in the game, but I like being at home. Maybe when my kids get older, I’ll think about it.”
If he did return to the game, Belle would like to do so as an owner.
“Maybe one day I could get into an ownership position,” he said. “Me and Kenny and Carlos could lead the charge and own the Indians. Maybe we could rustle up enough money and call the shots.”
Belle’s daughters — ranging in age from 11 to under 2 — know their father played baseball, and they have been introduced to the game by their mother.
“My wife bought them a little T-ball set,” Belle said. “I’d rather they learn to play golf or tennis, but they want to play T-ball.”
So which was tougher, facing Roger Clemens and David Cone or dealing with his kids?
“Cone and Clemens were easy,” Belle said. “It seems like all the kids get cranky at the same time.”
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/tribematters. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.