They say time heals all wounds. If there is one guy who will test that theory, it is LeBron James. In 15 years, assuming he never comes back to play in Cleveland, will people ever forgive him for how he left us all in the dust? I just can’t see that ever happening. Clevelanders have a long memory of being left at the dance for a prettier girl.
But more than a decade before there was “The Decision,” another Cleveland athletic giant, a dominating force in his sport, became a free agent and decided to leave Cleveland for more money and a bigger stage. I’m talking about the one and only, surly as they come, Albert Belle.
A 1987 Second round pick out of LSU, “Joey” Belle was a hitting machine with an edge to match. This was a guy who once went into the stands during a game at Mississippi State to chase after a fan who was yelling “Buckwheat” at him. He got his first taste of the Majors at are 22 in 1989, hitting seven homers in 62 games. A year later, Belle entered alcohol rehab treatment and emerged with his given name, “Albert.”
The rehab went well, but it was only a matter of time before his legendary temper flared to the heights that nobody had ever seen. In May of 1991, a fan in the left field stands at old Municipal Stadium was taunting Belle. Albert turned and fired a ball at the fan, hitting him in the chest from 15 feet away. Again, these are stories you can’t make up. Meanwhile, he was in the middle of a .282/25 homer/99 RBI/.332/.860 season at the age of 24.
That was just the start of Albert’s greatness on the field. Over the next five years as the Indians cleanup hitter, Belle averaged 41 homers and 123 RBIs while hitting .307. He was robbed of the 1995 MVP because he was so disliked by the media. Explain to me how a guy who hit 50 homers, had 50 doubles, drove in 126 runs, hit .317, and had a OPS of 1.091 on a team that went 100-44 can NOT win the award? Straight up robbed.
Sure, he was busted with a corked bat in 1994 and suspended seven games (who can forget the infamous Jason Grimsley crawl through the air ducts of New Comiskey Park to swipe the bat and exchange it for a Paul Sorrento model), and he chased down some trick or treating kids who egged his door in his SUV, and he threw a baseball at an SI photographer, and he cursed out NBC’s Hannah Storm, and he absolutely pummeled Brewers 2B Fernando Vina. (Can we watch that again please? Of course not, antiquated MLB has all old videos of game footage scrubbed from the internet. Way to cater to that youth demographic you are losing!)
Like Bill Laimbeer with the bad boy Pistons, Belle was a first class jerk – but he was OUR jerk. And I loved him for it.
After the 1996 season, in which Albert hit .311 with 48 homers with a league leading 148 RBIs, he became a free agent. Despite all of the coddling and excuse making the Indians made for their superstar bat, Belle made no secret about what he wanted – the most money. He got it in Chicago, signing a five-year, $55 million contract with the White Sox.
Upon leaving, Albert had some classic quotes that just fueled the fire of Tribe fans who felt betrayed by their former hero.
“Some people are saying it’s a slap in the face for me to go to a competitor, but it also was a slap in my face that they would go out and trade for Matt Williams, espicially when my situation was unsure.”
– USA Today…November 20, 1996
“What we should have done is kept the same team that played in the ’95 World Series. Those trades caused a lot of chaos in the organization. I didn’t feel like we were moving in the right direction.”
– USA Today…November 20, 1996, About the trades of Eddie Murray and Carlos Baerga
“I said, ‘How about five years, $45 million?’ But they felt like that was asking for too much. I just told them I thought they were making a big mistake.”
– USA Today…November 20, 1996, About contract negotiations with the Indians
But what was done was done. Albert played only four more years – two in Chicago and two in Baltimore – before being forced into retirement due to a degenerative hip condition. His numbers never dropped off. Even in his last season in 2000 where he essentially limped every time he moved, he drove in 103 runs.
While he played elsewhere the final four years of his extremely productive career, Belle will always be remembered as an Indian. After retirement, he faded off into obscurity, living in Scottsdale, Arizona. But on his way out, he didn’t hesitate to take shots at the organization whom he left for the money grab.
“The reason I left Cleveland is because I didn’t have fun anymore. We had a great team in ’95, and I thought we had a chance for a dynasty, but we fooled with the chemistry, and it blew up.”
“Now, look what’s happened to them. They fire Mike Hargrove. That’s John Hart for you. That’s the way he has always been. He won’t blame himself. He just points fingers at everyone else. He’s never pulled the trigger on a big trade, and probably never will. I mean, you look at that team. They’ve been looking for a front-line starter since I was there. And now they sign a 37-year-old pitcher (Chuck Finley). That’s why it would be a miracle if Manny (Ramirez) signs there. John Hart won’t put forth the effort.”
– Baseball Weekly…March 8, 2000, on his former GM John Hart
You read the tea leaves and you can tell he never really wanted to leave. This was a guy who once said in October of 1995 “I feel like myself and the city of Cleveland are in the same boat. We’re made for each other. A few years ago, everybody had bad thoughts on Albert Belle. I feel that has changed.”
So why all the Albert Belle talk today? Well, after years of being estranged from the organization, Belle today returned to visit his old team in Goodyear, Arizona at their spring training site. This was all at the urging of his former teammates Carlos Baerga and Kenny Lofton, who talked the slugger into making the visit.
I’m sure at some point today the media will be able to talk to him (or, maybe he won’t want to, knowing Albert). I would be interested in hearing why he decided to make the trip Goodyear.
Unlike LeBron James, I have forgiven Albert for leaving Cleveland. It took years, but I have let it go. But on that day when he came back to Cleveland in 1997, I was there, in full throat, booing him like I have never booed anyone before. He played right to the crowd too, giving the fans in left field the big “F You” sign as they dropped fake money from the home run porch.
Say what you want about him, but he can never be called a phony. He is who he is and never apologized for being that way. Flaws and all, the guy was one of the greatest hitters i’ve ever seen. The memories of the 95 season and the renaissance of baseball in Cleveland are something that this city will never forget. We will never have it as good as we had it then. Belle was a part of the core group, along with Lofton, Baerga, Sandy Alomar, Jim Thome, and Charles Nagy who grew up together and helped bring the team from dreary old Municipal Stadium to the glorious palace that was Jacobs Field.
It was so much fun then, and Albert Belle played such a major role in the rise of Tribe baseball. I don’t care that he left for more money. He never broke any promises. He wanted the most money, said so, and took it. That was now 15 years ago.
I am passed it, and I’m not afraid to say that Albert is one of my all-time favorite Indians. This picture says it all.
(top photo via Jordan Bastian Twitter account)