April 24, 2014

Yes, I Still Love Albert Belle

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)

  • 5KMD

    I have no problem with the guys who say it is about the money and then take the last dollar. Never had a problem with Albert. They should have a statue of him instead of that other guy who paid lip service to the fans while doing the same thing Albert did behind the scenes.

  • Garry_Owen

    My favorite Cleveland sports memory:  18 August 1995, bottom of the 9th, bases loaded, Lee Smith relieving for the Angels – hadn’t blown a save all year.  Albert crushes one to the bleachers, 20 feet from where I was sitting.  For that memory alone, he’ll never be a villain. 

  • #cantwait

    Dont have time to read the whole article but i got to the part of the highway robbery when Mo freaking Vaughn won the MVP.  Still one of the biggest cases of east coast bias EVER!!! are you freaking kidding me! 50-50 OPS over 1.0 while batting .317!!! Still mad about that to this day…

    ok i feel better now

  • TD

    maybe the greatest moment in Jacobs Field history. I was there too. Absolute pandemonium

  • saggy

    the guy laid it ALL out every game.  That’s why he will be welcomed back.  He didn’t quit when the going got tough, like another athlete.  

    He was so right about the parellel between himself and the city of Cleveland.  A perfect marriage.That guy would have been a first-ballot HOFer if he could have stayed healthy for only 3 more seasons.  of course, he was never caught using PEDs, but…..

  • gren

    Personally, I never thought of Albert as a villain. I may have been too young to understand why everyone went from ringing bells at the games to cursing at the name Albert. But, I always liked the way he played and thought it was a shame his career ended way too soon.

    Just like everyone else, I love some nostalgia, and it is great to see Albert maintaining a relationship with his former colleagues and back around the Indians.

  • Boomhauer

    Agreed. Albert never said they’d have to tear the jersey off of me. The Thome statue is another bad Dolan decision, like STO and Snow Days.

  • gren

    -Forgot this-

    The fact the media still talks bad about Albert’s time in Cleveland really makes me side with him. ‘Die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.’

  • Vindictive_Pat

    I was the same way as you TD… I was mad at Albert for a couple years and then let him off the hook.  I think that when I was younger, I thought it was more important that Albert chose Cleveland over the money.  Now that I’m older, I get that some guys are just wired that way and will always be a hired gun.  He never pretended to be the savior of the city of Cleveland and he made it clear to the GM, ownership, and the fans what his intentions were.  I have respect for that.  I do not have respect for a guy who makes false promises, says anything to get the media and fans on his side, doesn’t admit to his own arrogance, and sneaks around behind the organization’s back making plans to sip mojitos and play a little basketball with his friends (turning down more money to do so).  The two situations are very different… if LBJ had come out and said early that he doesn’t think the Cavs are committed to winning a championship and he’s planning on testing the free agent market, we all would have been stung but I think a lot more of us would have forgiven him.  But he didn’t want anyone to be mad at him, so he led everyone on until the last possible second, then spent a year accusing the fans of jealousy.  In short, even with Albert Belle’s short-comings, I still find him to be a better person that LeBron James.

  • mgbode

    I never cared much when Manny, Kenny, or Thome left.   I cared deeply when Albert left.  Not that he left (we had plenty of hitters), but that he went to the White Sox.

    Are we all forgetting the 1994 canceled season when the White Sox creeped a game ahead of us in the standings right when the season was cancelled?   Or the next few years where the new AL Central pitted the White Sox vs. the Tribe for supremacy?

    How about all those “best slugger in MLB:  Frank Thomas vs. Albert Belle” debates?

    And, he seemed to start a train of ex-Indian players who would don the Chicago uni’s before they retired.  

    I am sort of over it now (alot of good Tribe memories with him too).  But, I can still think back to when it happened and can still get angry about it.  Surprised that I seem alone in it.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Love the photo reminds me of the good old days when Jacob’s Field highlighted the assemblage of a great team of young guys led by one of my all time favorite Indians Mike Hargrove.  Ah memories…

  • http://twitter.com/WayneEmbrysKids Cleveland Jackson

    “dreary”????????

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Yeah that’s sort of the elephant in the room with regards to his legacy.  There’s no doubt in my mind that he juiced.  He had such a significant gain in muscle mass early in his career, it was staggering… Bonds-esque.  I didn’t even realize he and Joey Belle were the same person for over a year.

  • saggy

    and don’t forget the temper, the broken boom boxes, irritability…..

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Ahhh yes.  ‘ROID RAGE!

  • Harv 21

    I was never mad at Belle, I was ticked at Jerry Reinsdorf with his big mouth owner during the ’94 strike, going on and on about how owners are screwing the game by outbidding each other and paying crazy money to players. One year later, he personally paid what was then crazy money for Albert so he could make a murderer’s row with Big Hurt and Ventura.

    But to me Albert’s 50/50 and big years are tainted. In that era, with his growing physique, his rage, his propensity to cheat with cork, and his joint breakdown a few years later, I can’t give him the benefit of the doubt. Don’t care what he claims his doc told him after looking at his tests. That dugout muscle flex was such a Cleveland renaissance symbol to me then; now in retrospect I imagine a dripping needle sticking out of his bicep. 

  • Steve

    Can Dolan do anything without getting blamed? I dislike the Thome statue as much as you two, but the average fan, who can’t be bothered with the facts, loves it. Not sure why STO and Snow Days are bad decisions either.

  • Steve

    Except that, if we actually pay attention, we realize that steroid use and significant muscle gain among MLB players don’t correlate too well. Users are just as likely to look like Rafael Betancourt and Alex Sanchez as Barry Bonds. And of course, its possible to put on a lot of muscle without steroids.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Well, think of it this way… if you are looking to add mass, then you can get more of an exponential growth in mass by adding steroids to the party.  But you don’t have to add mass while taking steroids.  It seems pretty obvious to me that the mass Belle gained was aided by steroid use.  Can you add mass without steroids?  Of course.  Can your body change the way Belle’s did in one offseason’s time?  Probably not.  The cases for Sosa and Bonds are so similar, it’s hard not to see a similarity with Belle.

  • Harv 21

    how dare you. Opening Day ’94. Prez throws out the first pitch. Wayne Kirby opposite field single to left in the 9th inning off Randy Johnson. Ballgame. Have the ticket in the cheapo plastic desk holder to prove I was screaming from the Bleachers.

  • LMTShawn

    This guy is, and will always be my favorite Indian! I could go on and on about why he should be in the HOF and should have been the ’95 MVP. All I know is that he is what a Cleveland player should always be about; tough as nails, a little bit of a jerk, and all about WINNING!

    You could never leave your seat or even blink when this guy was at the plate. Troy Percival and Lee Smith probably still have nightmares about the guy hitting Grand Slams. Cleveland teams don’t have players like Albert anymore, and it is a shame. I don’t care if he can’t stand Hannah Storm (who can?) or little jerks that egg his house, the man could straight up play the game.

    And, he couldn’t be any more correct about John Hart. So many failed attempts at a big deal to push us over the top (especially with starting pitchers) all because he was afraid to move Wright, Giles, Sexson, Willie Martinez, etc. And look how that turned out. A real shame they thought $45M was too much. Imagine that today, he’d be making $200M.

  • EyesAbove

     Theres no smoking gun linking Albert to steroid use, but yeah you would have a hard time convincing me that he juicing. Ive always wondered if his story was true, that he asked the Indians for 45 million over 5 years and they turned him down. I always got the feeling that the front office had grown tired of his antics and was ready to move on. But thats just me.

  • EyesAbove

    meant to say “wasn’t juicing” 

  • Drew

    July 18, actually. I was there too, somewhere in the 500′s. First game I got to see at Jacobs Field.

  • Garry_Owen

    Good call.  Don’t know why I was thinking August. 

  • Chad

    Jose Canseco flat out said in his book that Albert never juiced. Everyone else that he said did has been proven. Why would Jose lie to protect Albert Belle.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    My sis was there that night… I was so jealous. Pandemonium is the perfect word.

  • Ezzie Goldish

    Great Belle story (hope I’m remembering it right):

    A friend of my parents is a lifelong Indians fan, his wife a hardcore White Sox fan. After Belle signed with the Sox, they decided to go down to Spring Training one February. On the way, close by, they found a limo or Lincoln (can’t recall) pulled over on the side of a highway in the middle of the night, with someone waving for people to stop. Lo and behold, it was… Albert Belle! He had run out of gas and asked if they could drive him to a gas station (a couple miles down) and drive him back, which they were happy to do. They must have said they were on their way to Spring Training, and he told them to come by and say hello then.

    A couple days later they were at Spring Training, and everyone was calling for Belle for autographs and as usual he was ignoring most of them. Suddenly he saw our friend’s wife (who is about 4’8) and a big smile broke out, he broke through the crowd and gave them a big hello, and signed a bunch of items for them. I think the rest of the crowd just stood there completely bewildered and confused; they said it was an awesome experience, and that he was actually a quiet, nice guy in general.

    Another family friend had him as a student in his accounting class in college (Joey at the time). He said he was an average student and quiet guy as well.

  • Matt

    I like this website but I completely disagree with this article. Albert Belle deserved to be the highest paid player in baseball. I think it was a matter of pride for him. The fact is the Indians have never been willing to shell out the big bucks to keep talent and please don’t compare him to Lebron James. James left in the most classless way possible. The fact is players are going to leave if you don’t pay them market value. The only time I have been emberassed to be a Cleveland fan was when Thome was booed on his return to the Jake. The Indians need an owner who will spend some money. I know we will never spend like the yanks or sox but keep some of our talent. We are nothing more than a farm system for big markets. Detroit has the worst economy in America and they are spending money like gangbusters.

  • mgbode

    never willing?  we were a top5 payroll team for most of the 90s when salary structure was driven by attendance and we were selling out every game.

  • AaronG

    Favorite Albert Belle Moment:
    1996 ALDS against Baltimore. My dad in I were in the 100′s. Tribe was down 0-2 in the best of 5 series facing elimination. Game tied 4-4 with the bases loaded in the bottom of the 7th when Belle came to the plate. 

    That grand slam was Belle’s last hit as an Indian. Fitting.

  • 5KMD

    They did try paying Thome market value. And then he kept going back to Philly and getting more money and years tacked on to their offer. And he would have kept doing that if the Tribe counter offerred.

  • 5KMD

    They did try paying Thome market value. And then he kept going back to Philly and getting more money and years tacked on to their offer. And he would have kept doing that if the Tribe counter offerred.

  • Harv 21

    well, what Thome was doing was defining his market value, much like Manny did. Philly paid it. We didn’t. What he wouldn’t do was give us a “home town discount,” the hopeful catch phrase we were all repeating then in the hope we wouldn’t have rely on ownership paying his new market value.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    I don’t buy it… how in the heck would Jose Canseco know if Belle was using steroids?  They were never on the same team and I don’t think they were friends.  I understand if he said that he had never heard anything about Albert juicing, but that’s very different than claiming to know that he didn’t juice.  Because of those reasons, I find it more suspicious that Canseco claims to know that Belle didn’t juice.  Maybe Belle slipped him some cash to say that in his book.

  • http://www.rehabalert.com/ Rehab

    I never knew that Belle entered alcohol rehab treatment and emerged with his given name, “Albert.”  I have had the pleasure of seeing him play.

  • Dan

    That picture of him pointing to his bicep is the all-time best baseball photo ever!!