All About Albert

A Defense of the Surly Slugger

Does anger bring out the best in Albert? In a way, we think it does. —former Indians teammate Kenny Lofton, HBO RealSports, September 1996

Jay Coakley is a sports sociologist at the University of Colorado. He sees Belle's problems as a natural reaction. "Elite athletes have accepted the norms of their particular environment without question—values like total dedication to the game, making sacrifices, and playing through pain. If I'm Albert Belle, and I'm completely dedicated to these guidelines, and people—these naive others, including journalists for the most part—don't understand what the hell I'm doing, then why should I try and explain it to them? If some white reporter comes to me looking to find out what the source of my anger is, not only can he not relate to who I am as an athlete, he certainly can't understand it in terms of who I am as a black man within a culture where a white fan feels he has some kind of right to use a racial obscenity with me after I've busted my ass and lived up to the norms of white society to a greater extent than any of those bastards in the stands. One of the questions I have is why more elite athletes haven't been like Albert Belle."

Coakley continues: "If a black athlete makes race an issue in connection with who he is, he's dead. So Albert Belle might feel that cutting himself off from the press and being an asshole is the lesser evil of two choices presented to him."

I have never received prestigious accolades, been acclaimed as a hard worker, winner, or team player, and have received unwarranted treatment that only Jackie Robinson, Curt Flood, and Hank Aaron could have experienced. —Albert Belle in The Baltimore Sun, October 1, 2000

Belle's most notorious tirade came during the 1995 World Series, when he verbally assaulted NBC announcer Hannah Storm while she was waiting to interview a teammate before Game 3; Belle objected to the reporter's presence in the dugout, a players' sanctum, during pregame warmups. The ugly incident prompted a $50,000 fine and effectively hardened the press's already harsh view of Belle—this after his magnificent .317 AVG, 126 RBI, 50 HR year in a 144-game, strike-shortened season.

"If you're willing to agree that the only thing that athletes really owe us is exceptional performance, then they certainly don't owe us this idea of being a role model," says Lipsyte. "Besides, being a role model is not about visiting kids dying of cancer in the hospital, it's about being nice to me when I'm on a deadline."

Ultimately, Belle's dedication to his craft and pursuit of exceptional performance almost kept him in the game despite the incredible pain in his hip and his relentless battering in the press. "I don't think he was ready to leave the game," says Baldizon. "I saw him a few weeks before spring training, and he was more exhausted about the effort involved with this continuous pressure from the media to get an answer at any cost than he was about the game itself."

On his way out of baseball, Belle has reaped all of the ill will that he has sown—and even more. But in his own way he has maintained an odd sort of integrity. He gave no press conference to announce his retirement, and he also declined to speak to the Voice for this story. In time, he may come to be appreciated for his resplendent skills, which are the only criteria by which the practitioner of any art form ought to be judged.

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