The promotional spot for Fox sports shows a youngster unable to knock over carnival milk bottles despite direct hits with a baseball.
Frustrated and angry, the youth returns with Albert Belle, who raises a bat, blasts the weighted bottles off the table and rewards the beaming youngster with the largest stuffed animal on the prize rack.
This is Belle, the Cleveland Indians’ slugging left fielder known to reporters as “the Sultan of Sullen.”
He contributes significant time and money to several youth programs, but that is largely overshadowed by a soiled image, which stems from behavioral incidents and run-ins with the media.
Belle, 29, makes no apologies.
Nor do the Indians.
“Just because he has a talent everybody wishes they had doesn’t mean he is or has to be Mother Teresa or Billy Graham,” teammate Orel Hershiser said. “Just because he excels in one area doesn’t mean he excels or should excel in all areas.”
Recently fined $50,000 by acting Commissioner Bud Selig for a profanity-laced verbal assault on NBC’s Hannah Storm in the dugout before Game 3 of the World Series last fall, Belle definitely excels as a hitter.
“We’ve been with Albert for seven years now and from the club perspective, we love him,” General Manager John Hart said the other day.
“He shows up every day to play, he’s the most focused player I’ve ever been around, he hits in the middle of the lineup and he produces.
“Everything you pay him to do, he does. From that perspective, we’ve never had any problems. It’s just the opposite. He’s our marquee player.”
That speech could haunt Hart in contract talks with Belle’s agent, Arn Tellem, who calls Belle the best offensive player in baseball and suggests he should be paid more than the $8.5-million average that Ken Griffey Jr. will receive in his extension with the Seattle Mariners.
It is impossible to put Belle, who will make $5.5 million this year and is eligible for free agency when the season ends, on the same defensive plane with Griffey, but over the last four years, Belle leads the majors in home runs, runs batted in and total bases. And in the last two years, he also leads in runs and slugging percentage and is second to Tony Gwynn in batting average.
Belle became the first player in major league history to hit 50 homers and 50 doubles in the same season last year, in a strike-shortened season.
He set a major league record with 31 homers after Aug. 1--"it looked like he was hitting in Little League parks,” Hart said--and tied Babe Ruth’s September record with 17.
If the 1994 season hadn’t also been shortened by the strike, Belle, who hit 36 homers that year, might have been the only player besides Ruth to hit 50 in consecutive seasons.
As it is, in his 249 games of those two shortened seasons, he hit 86 homers--or one every 11.1 times at bat--and drove in a remarkable 227 runs.
“No one works harder on hitting, except maybe Tony Gwynn,” teammate Carlos Baerga said.
“I kid him and . . . tell him he has to take a day off now and then, and he says, ‘No, I have to keep working. If you want to be a good hitter, you have to keep working.’ ”
Belle had a season worthy of the American League’s most-valuable-player award in 1995, but he lost to Mo Vaughn of the Boston Red Sox by eight points in voting by a committee of the Baseball Writers Assn. of America.
Belle had superior statistics across the board but may have paid for his poor relations with reporters, although the argument by some voters was that he played on a team of MVPs and did most of his hitting long after the Indians had wrapped up the Central Division title.
Cleveland Manager Mike Hargrove disagreed, saying it is impossible to dismiss 50 homers and 50 doubles.
“I think they were looking to vote for the nice guy instead of the perceived bad guy,” Hargrove said. “Albert isn’t a bad guy. He’s just not always a polite guy, and he needs to work on that.”
Teammate Eddie Murray dismisses interview requests with a polite “No thank you, sir,” but Belle often does it in a profane and menacing manner, or simply turns his back, ignoring the request.
He recently snubbed Roy Firestone of ESPN after Firestone had flown to Florida, thinking he had a prearranged meeting with Belle. On the same day, Belle kept reporters from Newsday, the St. Petersburg Times and the Los Angeles Times waiting for more than 90 minutes for a prearranged interview. He finally relented at the urging of a club official and a word on behalf of the reporters from Hershiser.
Belle was polite, articulate and, at times, humorous during the 20-minute session.
He said of the MVP award that it should come down to what a player does on the field.
“A couple years ago, Cecil Fielder hit 50 home runs [for Detroit] and people said, ‘Well, he played for a last-place team,’ so Rickey Henderson won it because the A’s finished first,” Belle said. “I hit 50 home runs for a first-place team and they say, ‘Well, he played on a team with a lineup of MVPs.’
“How about Frank Thomas? His team was in first place both of the years he won it. I had better numbers and our team was in first place, but they said we had a team full of MVPs.
“The writers shouldn’t vote because they’re biased. It should be managers and coaches, maybe former players. I was player of the year and won all of the other awards voted by my peers, so that kind of tells you what the MVP is all about.”
Pausing, Belle added:
“It really doesn’t bother me what people think about my image. Some people like Albert Belle, some people love Albert Belle, some people don’t like Albert Belle, some people hate Albert Belle. I can’t please everyone. The main thing I’m concerned about is being productive when I step between the white lines and helping my teammates win a championship.
“My situation is, I’m the kind of person [who] can do 99 great things and as soon as I do one bad thing it overshadows the 99. Why? I don’t know. Controversy is what sells newspapers. A lot of people don’t like to read about good things professional athletes do for their community, for their family, for people in general. They’d rather see where he was arrested or got in a bar fight or things of that sort.”
Belle’s parents are educators. A brother is an accountant in Memphis, Tenn. And Belle himself has been nominated for the Roberto Clemente and Branch Rickey awards for community activism. Yet . . .
--Tantrums got him suspended from the Louisiana State baseball team.
--He underwent rehabilitation for alcohol abuse shortly after joining the Indians in 1990.
--He was demoted in 1991 for failing to hustle.
--He tore up clubhouses and fixtures.
--He was suspended by the league four times--twice for charging the mound when hit by pitches, once for throwing a baseball into the chest of a fan who, he said, was belittling him with racial epithets and once for having a corked bat that he denied knowledge of.
--He has been hounded by headlines recently regarding the fine for the World Series incident with Storm and a Halloween night escapade in which he drove his truck after youngsters, reportedly bumping one of the boys who had thrown eggs at his Cleveland-area house.
He was fined for reckless operation of a vehicle and is being sued by the youngster he allegedly bumped.
In an interview with Jim Ingraham, who covers the Indians for the Lake County (Ohio) News-Herald, Belle said his sullied image could be traced to American League President Gene Budig and predecessor Bobby Brown, Red Sox Manager Kevin Kennedy and General Manager Dan Duquette, umpires Joe Brinkman and John Hirschbeck, Selig, Indian beat writers and non-understanding fans, the city of Richmond Heights, where the Halloween incident took place, and the judge in that case.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” Belle said in the interview here at the Indians’ training base. He added that although he hoped to establish “a happy medium” with reporters. “You look at one particular year--1994, I hit .357 and I didn’t talk to the media at all. When you think about it, if I don’t talk to the media and hit .357, maybe I shouldn’t talk to them at all.
“Maybe the less you talk to the media, the more home runs you hit. Maybe I might have to keep doing that.”
Despite a stance suggesting nothing matters as long as Belle continues to hit home runs--"Albert is Albert,” Hart said--the Indians will try to improve his image. They will try to make him available after games. They have encouraged him to meet with the club psychologist, and they will more heavily publicize his charity and community work.
Tellem said Belle has contributed “hundreds and thousands of dollars” to charity and has done it anonymously, “which is the highest form of charity.”
In the agreement under which Belle accepted the $50,000 fine--the Indians deny they are paying it--for his tirade at Storm, the money will go to three Cleveland organizations--the Liberty Hill Baptist Church, the Larry Doby RBI program and the inner-city Rookie League.
Tellem said the amount of Belle’s fine was unjustified and without precedent, but that Selig was holding a suspension over Belle’s head.
“I didn’t want him to lose the home run or RBI titles by sitting out . . . or risk having the Indians lose the pennant,” Tellem said.
In a statement at the time of the fine, Belle said, “I very much regret the incident and the ill feelings it has generated. At no time whatsoever was the presence in the dugout of any individual reporter the cause of my actions. I was upset with the sheer number of them and not any particular one. Having said that, many of them were simply doing their job, and it was not for me to decide that they should not be there.”
In the recent interview, however, Belle again said he shouldn’t have been punished.
“There’s never been a player fined or suspended for roughing up a reporter--some worse than what I did,” he said.
Others have been fined, but not as much.
In any case, precedent is not relevant, Selig said.
“We have to do what we think is right,” he said. “Baseball is in the early stages of a very powerful recovery. We have to show a deep sensitivity to everyone we interact with.”
Whether Belle and other players now face similar fines for confrontations with reporters remains to be seen. If history means anything, Belle’s bat will continue to do most of the talking for him.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Through five full seasons, Albert Belle’s statistics rate with some of the greatest outfielders of all-time:
Player HR RBI Avg. Slug % HR % TB Runs Prod. Willie Mays 192 514 .328 .618 6.6 1,797 898 Albert Belle 186 556 .298 .588 7.2 1,592 822 Mickey Mantle 121 445 .298 .528 5.0 1,272 834 Hank Aaron 140 494 .316 .543 4.8 1,571 850 Frank Robinson 165 449 .298 .552 6.0 1,512 785
Over the past two seasons, Belle leads the major leagues in the following categories:
Home Runs: 86
Runs Batted In: 227
Total Bases: 671
Slugging %: 700
Runs Produced: 352
Batting Average: .334