The Great Albert Belle Bat Caper: Reliving Yesteryear

Albert Belle, Steady Flexin

Albert Belle, Steady Flexin

Of course, the Chicago White Sox will neither confirm nor deny. Certainly, the Sox employ national, regional, area and international scouts for amateur prospects. All teams do. But their major league player acquisition strategy appears to be one of a kind.

History bears it out.

Sources speculate that a certain baseball expert holds formal tryouts with the entire roster of the Cleveland Indians ball club dozens of times a year. The American League is complicit in this arrangement, as the games the White Sox play against Cleveland count in the standings.

According to the theory, the savant at the helm of this ingenious arrangement hides in plain sight. He is a radio announcer for the White Sox.

One can just imagine the high-level baseball banter that takes place in the scouting, er, radio booth. For example, let’s take a look back at a Friday night in July of 1994. The Indians and the White Sox were each winning at over a .600 clip, and were battling for first place in the Central Division…

“We are about ready to tee it up here on the south side. Center fielder Kenny Lofton steps in for the bad guys…”

Lofton was hitting his prime during that inaugural season of Jacobs Field. He was among the core of the team that the city of Cleveland fell in love with. Bunting down the third base line, Lofton shot out of a cannon and reached first base safely.

white sox kenny lofton“Good speed aboard. So right away it’s time for pitcher Jack McDowell of the Sox to cinch it up and hunker down.” With his hand on his mic, to his sidekick: “Ed, that looks like a ballplayer. The Sox need to sign him some day. Put it on the board…. Yesss.”

Shortstop Omar Vizquel showed bunt, and on the first pitch, Lofton was sliding into second with his 46th steal of the season. Omar bunted him to third.

“They are showing how it’s done—get em on, get em over, get em in. (Ed, when is this guy’s contract up? He’s a ballplayer.)”

Second baseman Carlos Baerga singled home Lofton and the Tribe was up by a run. The next batter was left fielder Albert Belle.

White Sox manager Gene Lamont approached the umpire after Belle grounded out. Someone had tipped him off to the possibility that Belle corked his bat. Lamont used his one-bat-per-game right-to-challenge and had the umpire confiscate it. The ump had a member of the grounds crew lock the bat inside the umpires’ locker room under the grandstands.

The game proceeded without further interruption. Privately, the Indians dugout fell into deep anxiety. Belle was their MVP, a league Triple Crown candidate. He struck fear into opposing pitchers with his menacing scowl, his power, and his performance in the clutch. And his teammates knew Belle’s bat would be discovered to have been hollowed out and packed with cork. The benefit to a hitter was debatable; some hold that hollowed out, lighter bats are swung faster. Regardless, it is illegal, and the Tribe’s thumper was looking at a suspension.

“(Ed, who is that number 8? He’s a ball player. The Sox should sign him some day. Write that down.)”

Indians starting pitcher Mark Clark retired the side in order. As did McDowell, in the 2nd inning. Third baseman Jim Thome and catcher Sandy Alomar, Jr. were the first two outs.

“There’s a can o’ corn. Second baseman Martin is there and there’s one out.”

“And Alomar lines out to Ventura at third. Grab some bench.”

white sox sandy“(Ed? Write this down:  Jim Thome, and Sandy Alomar.)”

Meanwhile, a spot starter for the Tribe had an idea. Jason Grimsley rose to his feet, summoned a non-playing team assistant, picked up a couple flashlights, and walked out of the dugout toward the visitors’ clubhouse. The twosome entered Mike Hargrove’s visiting manager’s office, and walked to the wall at the far end of the room.

In the Tribe 3rd , right fielder Wayne Kirby led off with a swinging strikeout.

“HE GONE.”

Inexplicably, McDowell then walked Lofton on four pitches. On the 1-1 pitch to Vizquel, Lofton stole second again. Number 47. Baerga singled him home. Tribe up, 2-0 in the middle of the 3rd.

Grimsley and his accomplice moved a ceiling tile out of the way, and climbed up and onto an 18-inch-wide cinderblock wall. In the hot space, cramped by the sloping stands above, they traveled 30 feet atop the wall. They guessed where the ump’s room was, and removed the ceiling tile—only to make eye contact with someone sitting on the couch in the groundskeepers’ quarters. The unknown person kept quiet as Grimsley replaced the ceiling piece and traveled further through the ceiling.

Sox shortstop Ozzie Guillen hit a ground ball to Vizquel.

“A chopper, two hopper.”

It scored catcher Ron Karkovice, who had tripled and who was having an otherwise tough day handling Kenny Lofton on the bases. 2-1 Indians after three.

The score remained 2-1 until the top of the fifth. The dangerous Lofton lofted a foul fly ball toward third that was caught.

“Lookin’ for it, got it, and couldn’t do nothin’ with it.”

white sox omarThe exact same fate befell Vizquel. That’s when the Tribe went to work- singles by Baerga and Belle put runners at first and second with future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray stepping to the plate.

Roughly around this time, the partners in crime reached the umps’ room and dropped down to a refrigerator, then to a counter and the floor. Grimsley found Belle’s bat and replaced it with an untampered version—only, it wasn’t an Albert Belle bat; it was a grimy, old, pine tar-covered, Paul Sorrento bat. Apparently, there were no Albert Belle bats that were not corked! Grimsley and his accomplice left the room the way they entered, and made it back to the Indians’ clubhouse. If the theft would have taken place a little earlier, or a few moments later, they would have been busted by officials entering the umps’ locked room.

Murray connected on a ground ball down the right field line. Baerga scored; Belle held up at third. (We Tribe fans know: if Belle had hit that ball and both runners didn’t score, the ‘needle’ on his demeanor would have moved from ‘irritated’ to ‘furious’.)

That pretty much was the ball game. Both Clark and McDowell pitched well, and into the ninth inning. The Indians won by a run, and the teams would leave the ball park in a virtual tie for first place.

The brilliant mind of the cutting-edge scouting department of the White Sox had done his job, however. Eventually, Lofton, Vizquel, Belle, Thome and Alomar all would one day don the garb of the Chicago south side. Very impressive. Wow.

“(Ed, I hear that new kid over there is a natural hitter. Write this name down: Manny Ramirez.)”

“(Paulie. Paulie. I like to say the name Paulie, Ed. I see Cleveland has this Paul Sorrento… Gotta take a look at that guy. Paulie…”)

white sox mannyIt could not have been more obvious that Belle’s bat had been stolen. Not only was the bat a Sorrento model, but there was the matter of twisted ceiling brackets and tile debris on the floor in the umpire’s room. The White Sox were furious. They threatened to call the FBI (it is not clear if this threat was received by the Indians’ organization with a straight face).

Nobody at the time claimed to know who the culprit was. The Chicago Tribune reported that some non-uniformed members of the Indians organization were prime suspects. Authorities were also said to be looking at “an identified and fervent Cleveland fan who made the trip here from Shaker Heights, Ohio.”

At least twice—on a radio interview and in Baseball Digest, Belle insisted that the White Sox had actually broken into the Indians’ clubhouse before the game, and substituted a corked bat for the one he was using. I’m pretty sure it was without cracking a smile. It is Albert Belle we’re talking about, here.

(I should qualify that last statement. Isn’t it a treat to see Albert in the spring, relaxed and loose with some of his ex-teammates with the Tribe?)

Belle served a suspension for the corked bat incident in 1994. He returned with a vengeance. He went on a patented hot streak over the remaining games played in that strike-shortened season.

jason grimsley.jpgjason grimsley.jpgFive full years later, Grimsley confessed publicly to the break-in and the theft of Belle’s bat. He said it was the hardest he’d ever felt his heart pumping. He also said Belle rewarded him with a free round of golf. It never did come out as to who tipped off Lamont in the first place.

(Belle cheated. Grimsley executed the break-in, and stole the bat to cover up the cheating. Their teammates were supportive of both players. So how serious were these indiscretions? My take is there are grave breaches of the rules, and there is gamesmanship. Baseball history is filled to the brim with gamesmanship. There’s the Tribe’s Gaylord Perry winning a Cy Young award with the help of illegal pitches. There’s Bob Feller and some teammates using his military telescope to steal signs from the outfield stands. There’s owner Bill Veeck moving the outfield fences in and out during the same game depending on whether his team was at bat or in the field. To me, Albert Belle corking his bat smacks of gamesmanship. And yes of course, I think I am absolutely unbiased.)

***

Sources include the SI Vault, and Buster Olney’s 1999 New York Times story in which the then-Yankee Grimsley finally owned up to the heist. Also, baseball-reference.com. Oh, and I am sooo tired of how every scandal is referred to these days—but for the benefit of internet search engines: BATGATE. Bat Gate. Bat. Gate.

  • Natedawg86

    I love players for the Indians that other teams hate.

  • TNB

    This has always been my buddies favorite indians story to tell, which is bittersweet to me, because it makes the story of when I was heard on a TV broadcast from the upper deck the second favorite indians story.

  • saggy

    I HATE those White Sox announcers. Even if they were your hometown guys you’d have to admit their childish amateurism.

  • mgbode

    Belle = cheating. Grimsley = gamesmanship. And, no bat should have gotten Belle off and the White Sox could suck on lemons. But, whatever, Belle showed where the real cork was in the postseason.

    This, by the way, is my favorite sports story and you did a great job weaving the story into the game along with the sad fact that Chicago always seemed to grab out players. Thankfully, they tended to only get our guys after their bodies were betraying them and giving the CWS a smidgen of the talent that wore the Cleveland jerseys.

  • dude

    Why is there a picture of Brian Anderson in the article?

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com/ Scott @ WFNY

    Because I mistakenly put it in there. Thanks for the heads up.

  • Greg Popelka

    Appreciate the input. What are some other of your favorite Indians stories? Especially fun ones, vs. eg. Beer Night.

  • mgbode

    one of my favorite stories is Schaefer (Tigers) stealing 2B twice in the same inning even if it was against us. Just crazy.

  • Guest

    May 26th, 1993. My Dad and I walked up to the old stadium and bought tickets where we got to witness not only a Tribe win but Jose Canseco taking one off his head for a Carlos Martinez home run (RIP Carlos).

    I chuckle every time I see that highlight.

  • Guest

    May 26th, 1993. My Dad and I walked up to the old stadium and bought tickets where we got to witness not only a Tribe win but Jose Canseco taking one off his head for a Carlos Martinez home run (RIP Carlos).

    I chuckle every time I see that highlight.

  • The Other Tim

    1977: Dennis Eckersley is traded to the Red Sox. I listen to his wife interviewed on The Pete Franklin Show, she is excited about the trade. His wife then stays in Cleveland with Rick Manning.

    1978: Rangers’ Bobby Bonds charging Indians’ Rick Waits while carrying his bat. He did drop the bat and he did end up on the Indians the next season. I always wondered how that conversation went.

  • Petefranklin

    Jack McDowell?

  • Petefranklin

    Grandstand Managers night when Earl Weaver ripped up the rulebook.

  • mgbode

    yeah, Black Jack may have been the most disappointing FA signee for those Tribe teams. He certainly never gave us what he gave the CWS.

  • Greg Popelka

    I was at that Weaver game. Classic. He ran back out to get the pieces of the rule book before the grounds crew could. Then he ripped them into smaller pieces and threw them up in the air again! And boy, haven’t heard the term ‘grandstand managers’ in a while.