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.”
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.