Albert Belle didn’t play baseball to make friends.
His purpose in the game was to hit singles, doubles, triples and homers. The fans? The media? Often times, we just got in his way.
“How I approached the game, I wanted to get ready a certain way before the game. I didn't want to be bothered,” said the voice of Belle on the other end of the line.
For a man who had superhuman powers when it came to hitting a baseball, a clubhouse filled with sportswriters, sportscasters, cameras and microphones was like kryptonite.
It’s OK. I don’t take it personally. Neither should former Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti, who Belle referred to as “Mariucci.”
In a rare interview with the former major league outfielder, Belle discussed his volatile temper, the corked bat, steroids, the MLB owner he calls “an idiot” and more.
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Why did Belle act the way he did? With his baseball career now 13 years in the rear-view mirror, the former White Sox, Indians and Orioles slugger can look back at his porcupine past and see a man trapped by money, fame and a competitive mean streak.
Put all that together and it didn’t take much for Belle’s bell to go off.
“Most athletes are nice guys, but when you put that uniform on it transfers you into a different person because you're in a different world,” Belle said. “It's very competitive, especially when you throw in a lot of money, it becomes even more competitive. There are just things that come out that you wouldn't normally do at home or anywhere else, but it comes out in a sports arena.”
During his baseball career, Belle compiled a list of erratic behavior: Throwing a baseball in the chest of a taunting fan at Cleveland Stadium in 1991, charging the mound against Royals pitcher Neal Heaton in 1992, then again in 1993 for another Royals hurler, Hipolito Pichardo. There was a tirade against sportscaster Hannah Storm in 1995, and later that year he chased down some teenaged trick-or-treaters who threw eggs at his house.
But today, if you live around Scottsdale, Ariz., you might bump into a kinder, gentler Belle.
“I’m 46 now, compared to when I was 26, so I’m pretty mild-mannered. I’ve got a wife and kids and stuff," he said. "It’s a different personality now.”
Belle can’t change the past. However, he would like to clear up some of the misconceptions about his baseball career.
Number one: His infamous corked bat incident. To this day, Belle says his bat wasn’t corked.
It was July 15, 1994, in Chicago. While Belle was playing for the Indians, then-White Sox manager Gene Lamont challenged that Belle was using a corked bat. Umpire Dave Phillips confiscated the bat and locked it in the umpires’ room. During the game, Indians pitcher Jason Grimsley scrambled through a crawlspace above the ceiling and switched Belle’s bat with Paul Sorrento’s, a fellow teammate. The Chicago police would get involved, same with a former FBI agent sent by Major League Baseball.
Belle was suspended 10 games. After an appeal, the suspension was reduced to seven.
At the time, Belle said of the incident, “If I had used a corked bat, I would have had 50 home runs by now.” It was the middle of July. He had hit 24.
Today, Belle stands by his claim that he didn’t use a corked bat, and if there’s anyone guilty of foul play, he says it’s Major League Baseball.
“It was confiscated in Chicago. It didn't get to [American League president] Bobby Brown's office until a week later. So a lot of things can happen in a week and I was willing to challenge everything outside the realm of baseball, but they wouldn't let me do it, because pretty much baseball had the final say," Belle said. "First of all, why did it take so long? Second of all, why wasn't it X-rayed in Chicago because Comiskey Park had the ability to X-ray it?”
Was baseball out to get him?
“I know Bobby Brown was, because me and him had a few run-ins before as the American League president, so it was kind of his chance to get back at me, so he did," Belle said.
If his bat wasn’t corked, was Belle’s body juiced? He played in the middle of the Steroid Era. His 351 home runs in the 1990’s trails only Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey, Jr., but Belle says he shouldn’t be lumped into any steroid conversation.
“What people don't remember about Albert Belle is, Albert Belle was living in a glass house,” he said of himself. “I'm sure if Albert Belle was doing steroids, somebody would have reported me a long time ago. And I've always told people, you can go talk to any trainer, any strength coach, any teammate and ask them. I can tell you pretty much how much I weighed when I came into spring training, pretty much how much I weighed when I left, and pretty much how much I weighed at the end of the season. It was pretty consistent over the years. I've got nothing to hide.”
Belle’s best season was with the White Sox in 1998 when he nearly won the Triple Crown, finishing third in batting average (.328), second in home runs (49) and second in RBIs (152). However, it went largely unnoticed thanks to the McGwire-Sammy Sosa home-run chase. Everything else in baseball that season got zapped with a mute button. And yet, despite almost becoming the first Triple Crown winner in baseball in 31 years, Belle finished eighth in American League MVP voting and didn’t receive a single first-place vote.
There was no love for Belle, who sensed something fishy going on with the two men stealing the show.
“You look at McGwire who came out and admitted that he was shooting steroids. You could tell back then. He was as big as a house. He had muscles everywhere,” Belle said. “Sosa has been accused of using steroids. Their two seasons were incredible, but you just have to put an asterisk behind it. I know had they had their normal, typical seasons then I know my season would have gotten a lot more attention.”
Belle would have won the American League MVP in 1995 -- if only he were nicer and more available to the media. There’s no other way to explain it. That season Belle became the first player in baseball history to hit 50 home runs and 50 doubles, a distinction that still stands (and he did it in 143 games). He led the American League in home runs, doubles, runs, RBIs and slugging percentage, but lost the MVP to Boston’s Mo Vaughn, who had inferior numbers in every major offensive category except for one: RBIs. They were tied with 126.
Did Belle’s fractured relationship with the media have something to do with it?
“It had everything to do with it,” Belle said. “If you ask every reporter who voted, they knew they should have been voting for me. It should have been the greatest landslide in MVP history. Just because some of them didn't like me, or didn't like the way I approached interviews and stuff before the game, they didn't vote for me. But if you would have told them to vote strictly on the numbers, then it would have been a landslide. As long as I know everybody who voted knew that I had the best numbers and I was the best player, but they didn't like me, I'm OK with that.”
Here’s one example, written by ESPN’s Buster Olney, then a baseball writer for the Baltimore Sun.
After playing two seasons with the Orioles, Belle’s baseball career abruptly ended in 2001 because of an arthritic right hip. In a statement, the team said he was “totally disabled and unable to perform as a major league baseball player.”
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At 34, Belle wanted to keep playing, but his body let him down and according to Belle, so did Orioles owner Peter Angelos.
“I tried to work things out with the owner in Baltimore where I would gradually play myself into shape in spring training,” Belle said. “He was really pushing me to get out there and play and I wasn't ready. After I played a couple intrasquad games before the spring training games started, my legs were just hurting so bad and I just never recovered. Obviously, I was mad at the owner of the Orioles, because I think he's an idiot anyway. I never made it out of spring training, so I was upset about that for a while because I wanted to end on my terms but it didn't work out that way.”
Belle believes that if it wasn’t for his injured hip, he would have played long enough to make the Hall of Fame. “Without a doubt,” he said. Sure, there are some baseball writers who covered Belle for a living who might disagree with that, but when Belle was in the box with a bat in his hand, he was one of the most ferocious hitters in baseball history.
“My career was cut short, but it was a great run. I certainly would have liked to have done it for a few more years, but it didn’t work out that way,” Belle said. “I don’t have any regrets. I enjoyed everything.”