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A New, Improved Belle Bearing Up Under Scrutiny : Baseball: Cleveland slugger puts his problems behind him, while making opposing pitchers pay for their mistakes.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Albert Belle feels people’s eyes on him, watching and waiting for him to make the mistake they expect will come.

Instead, while they watch, he thrives on the mistakes of others. Those of opposing pitchers, for example. Against the Angels Wednesday night at Anaheim Stadium, his two-run home run off Chuck Finley in the first inning gave the Cleveland Indians a lead it never gave up in a 5-1 victory. He drove in another run with a single, and raised his average to .288.

The home run was Belle’s second in two nights, and his fifth of the season.

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During spring training, when pitchers were testing their arms and honing their pitches, Belle went deep 11 times, hitting more home runs than any other major league player did this spring.

A season after checking himself into the Cleveland Clinic for a 10-week treatment for alcoholism, Belle laid claim to left field, inserting himself into the Indians’ plans with a .324 spring average and the 11 homers.

“It was a situation where there was a job open in the outfield, and I did everything I could do to show I could play left field,” Belle said. “I worked hard on my defense, and I showed I can be a clean-up hitter in the major leagues.”

To do that, he had to change. Behind him, Belle dragged a history of temper tantrums and conduct problems. The conclusion is there to be drawn.

“It was pretty obvious in the results,” Belle said. “What I’ve done without alcohol is a lot better than what I did with alcohol. It’s too hard to stay concentrated and focused enough to play major league baseball when there’s alcohol in your system.”

One of the first changes, and the most apparent to the public, was his name. Albert Jojuan Belle was known as Joey until he underwent treatment for alcoholism. His counselors urged him to change something major in his life, and Belle said goodby to Joey.

The Indians, who watched Joey hit .174 in nine games last April and May before sending him to the minors, waited to see what kind of player Albert would be.

This was a player who had marked his entry into the major leagues in grand style, by driving in a run with a single off Nolan Ryan in his first major league at-bat, in 1989.

He was also a player who was suspended from the Indians’ triple-A Colorado Springs team for taking a bat to a toilet last season before deciding to seek rehabilitation. Before that, he had been sent home from a winter league team for not hustling.

Billy Williams, one of the Indians’ coaches, has known Belle since double A. He knows Belle’s talent as well as anyone, but he knew the baggage Belle carried.

“He’s doing the things I expected him to do all along, the things he did back in Canton, Ohio, when we had him in double A,” Williams said. “Albert Belle is a kid who has got a lot of ability. It was just a question of what he would do with it.”

For a time, it seemed, not much.

“The Indians went to the last mile for him,” Williams said.

Before this season, team president Hank Peters didn’t know if it had been worth it.

“We didn’t know what to expect from Belle,” Peters said before the season. “We had no idea what he would do.”

Belle knew that.

“Nobody ever questioned my playing ability,” he said. “They always doubted my mental approach. Spring training was a chance to showcase my talent on the major league level.”

He did that, and began the season in the same vein. He homered in the first game of the year, against Kansas City’s Bret Saberhagen. Against Boston on April 14, he homered twice in one game, giving him three home runs in the first six games of the season.

“I’m extremely happy for him,” Williams said. “It was very frustrating. I sat him down and told him some of the thing I went through. I told him you’ve got the opportunity to make a lot of money in this game, and never have to work in your life.”

After his early-season show, Belle’s bat had been quiet until Tuesday, when he hit the first of two against the Angels.

“I think people expected me to hit 20 home runs by the end of April,” Belle said. “Home runs don’t come easy, not in the major leagues.”

This is the real thing, not spring, he cautioned.

“(Pitchers) made a lot of mistakes (in spring training),” he said. “Fortunately for me, I was able to hit those balls out of the ballpark.

“Now that the season has started, I’m not seeing the same mistakes. The pitchers are real strong and effective. That’s what makes them major leaguers.”

But even major leaguers make mistakes. Belle waits for the pitchers to make them. Others wait for his.

If he strikes out and throws his helmet, what will they think? When his batting average takes one of those dips that come in the course of a season, what will they suspect?

“I don’t go by what people think,” Belle said. “Most of the time, people always think something negative. I have a tendency not to pay attention to what people think about me.”

Still, he can’t help noticing that they are watching, waiting.

“Once you get to the big leagues,” Williams said, “the whole world is looking.”


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