Media mole spills the beans to Belle on plot against him

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Cleveland Indians slugger Albert Belle said last week that he is the victim of a smear campaign by the media.

How did the man figure it out? Belle must have friends in the Central Intelligence Agency, sleuths who sniffed out the nationwide conspiracy. Or maybe there's a leak in the Baseball Writers' Association of America, and if there is, we'll find the cad and thrash him or her with our press passes.

Belle must know the whole story by now. He must know about members of the baseball media secretly gathering at a remote Montana cabin in 1989, the year Belle broke into the majors. He must know how writers and broadcasters decided to single out Belle and smear his reputation, then chewed on elk and drank home brew.

What a complex plan we had to ruin Belle's image. That fan who yelled nasty things at Belle, prompting the Indians outfielder to fire a baseball at him? He was a baseball writers' operative, hired in Montana, given airfare and free season tickets, plus a bat autographed by Bob Uecker, who is, of course, one of us, the baseball media. Belle was suspended for that incident, but rest assured, that was the media's fault, a total setup.

Remember those fights Belle had, charging the mound? We confess: the Baseball Writers' Association ordered the pitchers to throw at him. It wasn't hard to arrange, not when you have the power to offer a year's subscription to Field and Stream in return (we had to enlist our outdoors brethren for that enticement).

The bat-corking incident in 1994 was a highlight for the baseball media. Belle's bat was confiscated and, after the Indians were accused of stealing the offending bat from the umpires' dressing room, the bat was found to contain cork and Belle was suspended.

Truth is, the baseball media was responsible. ESPN's Peter Gammons corked a bat in the basement of his Boston-area home, then threw the tools into the Charles River at midnight. Posing as a clubhouse attendant, Gammons slipped into the Indians' dressing room and switched bats.

The White Sox are convinced, to this day, that one or two members of the Indians were responsible for crawling into the umpires' dressing room after removing ceiling tiles and grabbing the corked bat. Actually, it was Bob Costas and Mike Lupica, two of the more diminutive members of the baseball media, who were sent to ensure Gammons didn't leave his fingerprints on the bat.

Belle unleashed a tirade at NBC's Hannah Storm during the 1995 World Series, an incident that cost him $50,000 in fines. What Belle may not know is that Storm went through an intensive training course in the African desert in preparation for this dangerous assignment. Code name: How To Offend Albert Belle By Merely Standing In Place. A complete success, we thought.

The Indians lost the World Series and Belle went home, but the baseball media wouldn't let up. We hired a couple of kids to pull off a standard Halloween prank -- egging his house. Then, when Belle innocently charged out of his home, climbed into his pickup and drove across a lawn in search of the offenders, Sun columnist Ken Rosenthal raced in front of Belle's truck, leaving -- the impression the Indians slugger was trying to run down the trick-or-treaters.

Perhaps our plot began to unravel this April, when we sent a Sports Illustrated photographer to brazenly take pictures of Belle. Not only that, but we hired a photographer with really big hands, so when Belle happened to fire baseballs in his direction, he was sure to be hit on the knuckles, creating another furor, further smearing Belle's image.

What nobody knows, however, is just how far our villainy extends, how deep our resources really are. In that original meeting in Montana in 1989, the baseball media allotted $1 million to develop our own talent, and we gave him a name: Fernando Vina.

In return for a few positive printed words on the exploits of acting commissioner Bud Selig, the baseball media placed Vina with a team in the same division as Belle, the Milwaukee Brewers. Then we waited, leaving Vina with these permanent instructions: Should the opportunity ever arise, place your jaw on Belle's elbow.

Vina did this expertly in May. Belle's image was tarnished further, and we laughed and danced some more in Montana during the All-Star break.

But Belle found out. He uncovered the whole smear campaign.

We must find the leak. We must plug the leak.

Ripken on retirement

Cal Ripken was part of the standing ovation for Ozzie Smith at the All-Star Game, but doesn't want to contemplate his own retirement.

"I think all of us think that if you play long enough and stay healthy, someone is going to figure out a way for you to play the game forever," Ripken said. "The reality is that it's going to end sometime.

"The result is that there's a space in the back of [your] mind that someone is going to figure out how it's not going to end. You'll just keep on playing. Retirement will be a thing of the past. You'll be able to play for the rest of your life."

Ripken chuckled a little, and added, "When I hear that someone is retiring, it makes me feel a little sad. Maybe it drives home the reality that everybody has to retire."

If they don't run hard, boo

The fans at Camden Yards might help curb a habitual problem a handful of Orioles have this year. If a player doesn't run hard to first base on a grounder or pop-up, he should be booed. Long and loudly.

Fans buying tickets aren't guaranteed victories, naturally, but they should at least know players give the maximum effort, or something close to it. The Milwaukee Brewers run hard every time. The Kansas City Royals run hard every time. The Minnesota Twins run hard every time. Why not the Orioles? (This is not a blanket indictment, for there are some Orioles who consistently run hard.)

Trade talk

Among the many trade rumors: The Indians are talking with the Red Sox about Mike Stanley, so Stanley can be used as a part-time first baseman and designated hitter. They also have some interest in Cubs first baseman Mark Grace, but Chicago is too close, at the moment, to unload one of its staple players.

Should the Yankees ever see fit to give up the prospects, they may be in the best position to deal for Kevin Appier, but Appier has made it known he doesn't want to pitch in New York.

Six teams have talked to the Toronto Blue Jays about Joe Carter, the Orioles and Padres among them; Carter is a free agent after this season and dealing him makes sense for the Blue Jays.

The Phillies are going to deal Benito Santiago, but they want to see how the market develops before pulling the trigger. If Colorado, Montreal or the Orioles become desperate for a catcher, they'll theoretically be willing to part with more. If they aren't, the Phillies can always find a taker in late July for a lower price.

San Francisco is trying to unload second baseman Robby Thompson and catcher Kirt Manwaring. Houston wants to improve its bullpen, but can't make the major investment needed.

Piazza in a groove

Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza is swinging so well, Los Angeles left-hander Mark Guthrie said, that when he sees a pitch down the middle of the plate, "you flinch. When I was in the American League, I never saw any of his games. All I ever saw of him was on 'SportsCenter' hitting home runs."

Right after Giants manager Dusty Baker said he was fed up with "sleepwalking" players, San Francisco dealt Mark Carreon to Cleveland.

Lee Smith, the slow-moving Reds reliever, showed up at Wrigley Field at the normal time. Teammate Mark Portugal was aghast. "Hey, Lee, what are you doing here? It ain't the fifth inning yet."

Reds shuffle coaches

The Reds replaced third base coach Marc Bombard with bench coach Joel Youngblood. "I'm not happy with some of the things I've seen," said manager Ray Knight. "Let's see if this gives us a different feel."

There was a sign of the times in Pittsburgh last week when St. Louis manager Tony La Russa replaced closer Dennis Eckersley with left-hander Tony Fossas.

Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz on the Braves: "No team is perfect. But we are as close to perfect as any team in baseball."

Seattle-Texas tension

Seattle and Texas got into a brushback war last weekend, with Rangers right-hander Ken Hill hitting Alex Rodriguez and John Marzano of the Mariners retaliating by throwing under the chin of catcher Ivan Rodriguez. After Rodriguez got up, he twice tipped his cap at Seattle manager Lou Piniella. Piniella said afterward: "Let's hope Hill was just trying to pitch inside. I will say one thing: we will not stand for our players getting hit."

New Marlins manager Frank Boles once coached baseball at Louisville, where the team captain showed him around campus before he took the job -- the captain being Kevin Malone, now the Orioles' assistant general manager. Boles met a baseball executive at a clinic and was offered a job with the Chicago White Sox. That executive was former White Sox and Orioles general manager Roland Hemond.

The Indians' Belle also said he feels so overwhelmed by all the negative attention he's been getting that he may sit out next season. He's a great ballplayer, but his absence would bother few in the baseball community -- excluding media members. He is hardly beloved. Unlike Kirby Puckett, who will be missed.

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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