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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Monday, April 23, 2001
In Defense of Albert Belle
Here’s a reprint of an article from the start of the season by our new addition from Cooperstown.
The man with the worst reputation in baseball is being forced to retire, to the media?s great delight. There has been a recent proliferation of columns by baseball writers wishing Albert Belle the worst, saying they won?t miss him and that baseball will be better off without him. All of them ignore one small fact: that Albert Belle is perhaps the most misunderstood athlete of his generation.
Let?s take a look at some of the awful things Belle supposedly did during his career. Ask yourself whether these incidents would have been interpreted differently had it been, say, Will Clark who did them. Okay, so throwing a baseball at a photographer and chasing down Halloween vandals in his truck were both uncalled for. He once corked a bat, which puts him somewhere between Bobby Thomson and Orel Hershiser in the pantheon of baseball cheaters. Knocking over Fernando Vi?a on the basepaths, while perhaps a bit emphatic, was only good baseball. And yelling at Hannah Storm in the dugout before a World Series game is, frankly, completely understandable. Nothing personal against Hannah Storm, but the dugout and clubhouse are a player?s home-away-from-home, the only place where they have privacy enough to relax and prepare for the game. I?ve been in a few clubhouses and dugouts myself, and let me tell you, reporters, especially during the postseason, have a tendency to prance around arrogantly as if they own the place. Wouldn?t you find it just a little disturbing if you were trying to prepare for a World Series game and were constantly distracted by the presence of a gaggle of self-absorbed, blow-dried fools calling themselves journalists? Wouldn?t you make your displeasure known if some stranger with a TV camera came into your office, sat down at your desk uninvited, and started typing away at your computer? ?I just want to play baseball,? Belle said in 1999. (Egads! An interview!) ?I don?t get excited talking about myself. Guys such as Sandy Koufax, Joe DiMaggio and Steve Carlton did not interview, and it was no big deal. They were quiet. I am also quiet. I just want to concentrate on baseball. Why does everyone want to hear me talk, anyway?? Sounds perfectly reasonable to me. So he doesn?t like talking in public. Big deal. Leave him be.
Since beat reporters are the guys (and they are almost all guys) who vote for the Hall of Fame, their distaste for Belle will probably cost him a spot in baseball?s shrine. I don?t much care whether Belle makes the Hall of Fame or not, but it would seem a shame to penalize one of baseball?s greatest players just because he?d rather go home after the game than submit himself to a bunch of stupid questions. I?m not convinced that Albert is a bad guy, but even if he is, is that reason enough to keep him out of the Hall of Fame? It?s never been reason enough before. From Cap Anson to Ty Cobb to Joe DiMaggio to Tom Yawkey, the Hall of Fame as it stands is a virtual Hall of ########. So why change things now?
Let?s set one thing straight right here: Whether to give interviews is a personal choice. Granted, most players do give at least a few, but it?s completely up to them. There are all kinds of perfectly legitimate reasons for players to decline interviews, not the least of which is that the things they say often end up distorted when reduced to four-second sound bites on TV or sentence-long quotes in the newspaper. A player might have a dinner reservation, or he might feel like going to the movies, or, for chrissakes, he might just want to go home and see his kids. Should we really expect him to stick around so some guy wearing a grimy sports jacket and a polo shirt he didn?t pay for can ask the player why he struck out three times?
Dan Patrick has written (or had somebody write for him) a whining and bitter column at ESPN.com about Belle?s retirement. Patrick wishes Belle ?good riddance,? saying that he once liked him, but after Albert stopped talking to the media, ?he just wasn?t one of the good guys anymore.? Get over yourself, Dan. Contrary to popular opinion, the world does not revolve around sports journalists, not even Dan Patrick. Most baseball media view getting interviews as an inalienable right, not a privilege, and so our public impressions of players are distorted by one simple rule of sports reporting: Anyone who?s friendly with the media is a saint, and anyone who?s not is a stain upon humanity. Guys with attitudes, especially black guys with attitudes, get short shrift. Ask yourself this: What, exactly, is the difference between Albert Belle and Paul O?Neill? Both are good-hitting outfielders who?ve made valuable contributions to winning teams. Both are temperamental, even antisocial, though both have used that rage constructively on the playing field. Both are consummate competitors. The main difference, of course, is that O?Neill is white. And he talks to the press. So he?s a good guy.
But there is sufficient reason to believe that Albert Belle is also a good guy, or at least an interesting one. He has been described by those who know him as a nice, even ?sweet? person when not in the presence of journalists. His work ethic has never been questioned; even his detractors admit that he has been one of baseball?s hardest-working players and most intense competitors. He has confronted and apparently defeated alcoholism. In a baseball world dominated by back-stabbing player agents, Belle?s agent is his twin brother, Terry. Belle helps kids learn baseball and gives money to scholarship funds, although he doesn?t let Terry publicize these actions. In a profession where the sports pages are considered high literature, Belle, who graduated fourth in his high school class, is a literate and intelligent man. He plays chess. He enjoys writing. He has penned columns for his website and for the Baltimore Sun, and wrote regularly for a small independent newspaper, The Baltimore Press. His first column for the Press was about teachers being underpaid and underappreciated. Inside sources report that unlike most writing by ballplayers, Belle?s columns are not ghostwritten. In 1998 Belle wrote a Christmas poem to Orioles fans, wishing them the best for the upcoming season. Albert Belle is an Eagle Scout, for chrissakes. Literally. Troop Nine in Shreveport, Louisiana. You could look it up.
Chances are you didn?t know many of these things. I was surprised to discover some of them myself. We?ve all heard endless discussions about Belle?s surliness and his tirades against reporters, but we haven?t heard any of the good stuff. Why not? You?ll have to decide that for yourself. Is Albert Belle really the monster the media portrays, or is he, as he has claimed, ?just an ordinary guy who can hit a baseball??
Eric Enders is a freelance baseball writer and currently works as a researcher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library in Cooperstown, New York.
Article copyright 2001 by Eric E. Enders. All rights reserved.
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