All About Albert

A Defense of the Surly Slugger

Personally, I can't think of anyone I would rather see in pain than Albert Belle.—Message 1052 of 1089 on the Yahoo! Groups Orioles message board, March 9, 2001

Albert Belle was one of baseball's most prolific hitters, at one point racking up eight straight seasons of more than 30 home runs and 100 RBIs. There have only been three players to match this impressive feat: Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Babe Ruth. You are not likely to hear Belle's name mentioned in the same sentence with this legendary triumvirate, however. Because, unlike those three, Belle is not beloved. He is loathed.

His last team, the Baltimore Orioles, arrives in town this week with a more sanitized, less-interesting version of last year's squad, because earlier this spring, at the age of 34, Belle was forced to retire due to a degenerative hip condition. The vitriol has been flowing ever since.

Sorry, there'll be no words of sympathy here for Albert Belle. He was a surly jerk before he got hurt and now he's a hurt surly jerk. . . . He was no credit to the game. Belle's boorish behavior should be remembered by every member of the Baseball Writers' Association when it comes time to consider him for the Hall of Fame. —Bill Madden, Daily News, March 11, 2001

Since Madden didn't return the Voice's phone calls, this reporter went to New York Times sportswriter Robert Lipsyte for comment on this consensus view of Belle: "Madden is basically saying, 'He was not nice to me, so let's fuck him.' Sportswriters anoint heroes in basically the same way you have crushes in junior high school. Someone like David Cone has cultivated this. Everybody loves him. And so everything he does is of the highest motivation. And then you've got someone like Albert Belle, who is somehow basically ungrateful for this enormous opportunity to play this game. If he's going to appear to us as a surly asshole, then we'll cover him that way. And then, of course, he's not gonna talk to us anymore—it's self-fulfilling."

People don't need to know what Albert Belle is thinking.—Albert Belle, Associated Press, September 26,1998

Former Orioles teammate Delino DeShields was friends with Belle in Baltimore and was one of the few to publicly support Albert after his retirement. "I don't think he appreciated getting booed all the time and having all those things said about him," DeShields told the Voice. "I mean, this was one of the big stars of the game, but he wasn't flamboyant. This is a well-rounded brother. He just wasn't a guy that wanted to be in the papers."

Adds photographer Victor Baldizon, "Albert has always maintained the position that when he's at work, he doesn't want to be bothered." Baldizon has been friends with Belle since shooting him for Sports Illustrated when the slugger was in the minors. "I think the problem that happens with the media in general is when people start to demand. A lot of people think that their media pass gives them free access to everything, you know? But these players have a life. Reporters never seemed to respect that. Everybody wants to talk about Albert, but everyone wants to break his legs."

Albert Belle should be in the same class as a Cal Ripken, a Ken Griffey. He was an Eagle Scout. He played in the Junior Olympics. And he's a Christian. . . . He's very genuine.—Terry Belle, Albert's twin brother, in the Chicago Tribune, July 9, 1997

Albert Belle grew up in a middle-class, black neighborhood in Shreveport, Louisiana. He is the son of two teachers and has a fraternal twin brother, Terry, with whom he remains very close. Albert graduated sixth in a high school class of 266 students, and went on to play college baseball at LSU. During a game against Mississippi State in 1987, Belle, then known as Joey, chased after a fan who had been screaming racist names at him, calling him "Buckwheat." Belle was suspended for the postseason that year and missed playing in the College World Series. The fallout from that incident has seemed to shape the rest of his public career.

"When he had that problem with the fan in college, he got absolutely torn apart," says Baldizon. "And after he came up to Cleveland, they hammered him again when he had another run-in." In 1990, Belle threw a baseball into the stands and hit a fan who had been taunting him about being an alcoholic soon after Belle had gone through rehab. "It just totally put the man against the media, because a lot of writers, all they wanted was to find out what was wrong with Albert."

Rick Woolf is a sports psychologist who was hired by the Cleveland Indians in 1989. He worked with and counseled Belle for five years. "Albert is a brilliant guy, and he's a lot more complicated than he's been portrayed," says Woolf. "He was a perfectionist in a game which is built upon imperfection. When I first got in touch with Albert in 1990, he was obviously a terrific talent, but it was clear that he couldn't deal with the frustration of baseball."

This notorious perfectionism often made life difficult for those around him and sometimes led Belle to do things like destroy equipment in the clubhouse. Not that this is particularly unusual behavior at the Major League level. As Lipsyte notes, "Someone like Paul O'Neill isn't viewed as a psychotic asshole [when he trashes his equipment], he's this marvelous perfectionist, who rages at his inability to be perfect. I mean, we like that."

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