Long before Albert Belle reached the Cleveland Indians, long before his conduct threatened the spot he has earned in the major leagues, his baseball coach at Louisiana State University had a rule for him.
Skip Bertman, the coach, made the rule a simple one as Belle's spectacular college career reached its junior year in 1987. If Belle threw a helmet, if he abused an umpire, if he cursed on his way to first base, Jack Voigt, a reserve outfielder, would run to replace him in right field at the earliest opportunity.
"Which he did do, many times, through Albert's sophomore and junior years," the coach remembered Tuesday in an interview by telephone from Baton Rouge, La.
It was Bertman's suspension of Belle just before the 1987 amateur draft that contributed to the player being selected in the second round, by the Indians, although Belle had been projected as one of the top players available.
The suspension came after an incident that would foreshadow his major league career: Belle went into the stands during the Southeastern Conference tournament to challenge a fan he said had been yelling racial slurs.
On Monday morning, with the Indians in town, Belle spent 30 minutes in the office of the American League president, Bobby Brown, in an appeal of a seven-day suspension for throwing a baseball at a fan who had sarcastically invited Belle, a recovering alcoholic, to a keg party during a game in early May.
The suspension was the longest for an American League position player since 1980. Belle expects a decision on the appeal to be announced by the league office Wednesday, and hopes that if he has to miss the seven days, he will be able to include the three-day All-Star break as part of the time served.
On June 6, Belle was sent to Cleveland's Class AAA farm club at Colorado Springs after his failure to run out a double play ball in the eighth inning of a 1-1 game against Chicago. Belle later explained he had mistakenly thought the force play was the third out of the inning.
Belle returned to the Indians on June 26 and has since batted .280, including two singles Tuesday night against the New York Yankees, for an overall average of .262 in 51 games this season with the Indians.
"I've been able to relax a little bit more," Belle said last night. "I was getting to a point where I was taking things too serious. I can still take the game serious, but I can't take it too serious. That's when I get in trouble."
That difference, the point at which intensity can be destructive, can be difficult for a 24-year-old to determine, even after 122 major-league games.
Bertman remembered that Belle's problems developed as expectations for him intensified.
The instant substitutions in college, triggered by outbursts, became more frequent as the major league draft approached. The ball-throwing incident this season took place after Belle's powerful spring training and start of the season inspired speculation of how much the outfielder could achieve.
"Those expectations are other people's," Bertman said. "The only ones that really count are yours. That has been the problem. If the bases are loaded and he's got to get the hit, and he lines to short, he's angry."
The accomplished professional finds a way to mix that anger with an understanding that hitting the ball on the nose, but
directly at someone, is a part of the game, and will be balanced by the end-of-the-bat roller that finds a hole. Too many times, Belle has simply remained angry.
"The point I'm making is he is just so tough on himself that way," Bertman said. "He expects every time up to hit the ball hard and get a base hit."
Belle said he can accept a line drive as his best effort. "I don't want to strike out, or hit into a double play like I have lately," he said.
Bertman finds it difficult to define the sometimes-troubled talent who was a B student, majoring in accounting, at LSU.
Belle came within six credits of an LSU degree despite spending just three years on campus, and has continued his education at Cleveland State University.
The coach remembered the response of counselors, professional players and others whom he had speak to Belle while he was in college. "Everybody would come out of the room and say, 'What a nice kid,'" Bertman said.
Bertman remembered the stories from the old days, of disgusted veterans taking out their frustrations on water coolers and restroom fixtures, out of sight and well beyond controversy. "He just can't wait," he said of Belle. "If he could only wait a little bit longer, it wouldn't be an issue."