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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 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.

Fadeaway: The Baseball History Podcast Posted: April 23, 2001 at 06:00 AM | 4 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. Fadeaway: The Baseball History Podcast Posted: April 24, 2001 at 12:04 AM (#603700)
Another thing about Belle I forgot to mention in the story: My friend Larry Lester tells me that in 1994, when SABR published "The Negro Leagues Book," a comprehensive historical record of the Negro Leagues, Belle paid for copies of the book to be sent free of charge to every living Negro League player. No publicity, no fanfare, just a simple good deed.
   2. scruff Posted: May 03, 2001 at 12:05 AM (#603736)
As far as the debate over character for the Hall of Fame goes, I would like to concur with those that have serious issues with this. This part of the system is seriously corrupt. You have people who rely on these players to put food on their own tables and you ask THEM to make a character assessment? That is a joke. I don't give a damn what Jack Lang and Jayson Stark and Dan Patrick (I know he doesn't have a vote) think of Albert Belle's character. Since the "character" issue is applied so randomly in my opinion it is useless.

Bill James once wrote about this, saying that selectively enforced laws are extremely dangerous for a society. Because everyone breaks them from time to time, so when you do something they don't like, they can nail you. The Nazi's used similar techniques. No one has perfect character. Everyone has their flaws. But if one of them happens to be being surly to the media, they'll nail you when they get the chance. Just look at what they did to Maris. The media had the public thinking HE was a jerk.

In effect all the Hall of Fame's moronic, short-sighted rule does is say, if you are a borderline candidate, you had better have been a good interview. That's a joke. The Hall of Fame election process is so seriously flawed that it has become a joke to many people. The "character" issue is just one more example of that. These guys are BASEBALL PLAYERS. For them to be judged for anything else is simply not right.
   3. scruff Posted: May 04, 2001 at 12:05 AM (#603742)
We preach sportsmanship at the high school level because you are teaching kids right from wrong. I'm with Barkley on this one. Let the parents be the role models. When you get the big leagues, W's and L's are what matter. Don't get me wrong, when a big leaguer screws up, you hold that up as an example for a high school kid of what not to do. But to use that in judgement of a player is ludicrous in my opinion, unless it impacts the bottom line, W's and L's.

As for the character clause being there in black and white, so what? What you are essentially saying is, "my driver, drunk or sober." I don't just blindly follow what they wrote into the rules 65 years ago. I'm for changing the rules. The football Hall of Fame doesn't have a character clause, if I remember correctly. I'm, not saying we shouldn't have the clause because sportsmanship and integrity don't matter. I'm saying it because there is no way to quantify it's effect on W's and L's, and leaving it to the subjective judgement of biased writers isn't fair in my opinion. What make them experts on a player's character? I wouldn't even say they are experts on the game half the time, but that's another argument.
   4. Brian Posted: August 15, 2001 at 12:10 AM (#604063)
I remember meeting Albert Belle about a month before spring training in February, 1993. He was at the gym on the Kent State campus. I, being the sports fan that I am, recognized him immediately. He was actually there playing ball with some friends, one of who I knew as well. Anyways, we got to playing on the same team, and he was an intense competitor. Between games, people would recognize him and ask him for an autograph, but he said no at the time, but would later. Albert wasn't the best at knocking down the 3, nor were his ball-handling skills the best, but he tried. And he shared. And he gave out compliments to his teammates AND opponents. When we were done, I talked to him for a short time and wished him luck during the next season (his first as an All-Star). I've remembered that, as I was leaving, he started signing autographs.
A few years later, I started working for a TV station in Cleveland, and had the chance to do Indians post-game. I tried two or three times to get an interview with Albert, but he declined each time. As an athlete, it was his choice, and I simply had to abide by it. I never saw him harass any reporters.
I always liked Albert with the Indians (he started out as Joey Belle, you may recall, prior to his incident with the drunken fan in the stands, who Belle later nailed in the chest, deservedly so!, with a ball!) He tried hard, sometimes taking on too much pressure. But I will never forget the 1995 season. Albert hit 51 home runs and 50 doubles, the ONLY player in baseball history to accomplish such a feat. We must give him his due. He was a great hitter, and decent fielder who always gave 110 percent.
He had a number of memorable moments, good and bad. Hitting the fan with the ball, corking his bat (like he needed that), chasing down some Halloween pranksters in his SUV, and yelling at Hannah Storm were definitely not his high points. He led the American League in HR's and RBI's several times, yet, never won an MVP award. He hit a number of game-winning homers with the Indians, including back to back nights against Toronto in the regular season, and a dramatic one in the extra-innings in a playoff game with Boston (you may remember, Red Sox manager Kevin Kennedy had Belle's bat confiscated, then Belle yelled at their dugout, flexing and pointing at his biceps).
Albert Belle may not have been good for the media, but he was a good player. I am a die-hard Indians fan, thus I loved him in Cleveland, then booed him when he went to Chicago. Even so, I wish him the best, because, during his playing days, he was.

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