SARASOTA, Fla. -- It has never been easy to be Albert Belle. His career has been spent in almost constant turmoil and his well-deserved reputation as one of baseball's all-time bad boys has all too often overshadowed his equally well-deserved standing among the most exciting players in the history of the game.
Maybe that's why he is trying so hard to take advantage of a fresh start this year with the Chicago White Sox.
The national media met a kinder, gentler Albert Belle yesterday after his first spring workout at the Ed Smith Spring Training Complex. He fielded questions during a crowded, 20-minute news conference and let it be known that he was ready to leave behind six turbulent years in Cleveland to help White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf lure baseball fans back to Comiskey Park.
He refused to allow queries about the gambling controversy that developed around him earlier this month, but otherwise accommodated the dozens of reporters and broadcasters who traveled to Sarasota to watch him pepper the parking lot with baseballs in his first batting practice session of the spring.
"Hopefully, fans in Chicago are going to see a big change in the team," Belle said, "and hopefully they'll come out in record numbers. I'm used to playing in a full stadium in Cleveland. I'd like to see the same thing in Chicago."
That's why Reinsdorf ponied up $55 million over five years to put Belle behind perennial MVP candidate Frank Thomas in the White Sox lineup. The club has spent the past two seasons looking up at the Indians and watching attendance at Comiskey Park slip dangerously close to small-market levels.
"I feel like I can come over and take some pressure off some guys," Belle said, "and I'll be glad to take that pressure. I'm looking forward to changing things around. Obviously, the Indians are the defending division champions and obviously we want to knock them off that horse. The main thing is to win."
To do that -- and to upend the Indians -- Belle has to continue to put up the kind of impressive numbers that convinced the White Sox he was worth $11 million per year. No one has more home runs (234) or RBIs (711) over the past six years, though Thomas (215 HRs, 698 RBIs) is not far behind.
"I want to get off to a great start," Belle said. "I guess the biggest thing about putting up big numbers is to stay healthy."
He has shown he can do that, but Belle will have to prove this year that he also can stay out of trouble. He has been suspended five times for various infractions since 1991, including the now-famous 1994 corked bat incident (at Comiskey Park), several fights and an ugly 1991 incident in which he intentionally fired a baseball at a heckler in the stands.
His latest brush with controversy happened less than two weeks ago, when he admitted during a deposition that he may have lost as much as $40,000 betting with friends on golf and sporting events. Belle refused to address the gambling allegations yesterday, choosing instead to release a statement on Wednesday explaining the circumstances of his gambling admission and strongly insisting that he has never bet on baseball, but the gambling revelation just added to his already dubious behavioral resume.
Belle knows he has an image problem, and his attempt to cooperate more with the Chicago media is an indication that he wants to do something about it. The big question is whether his spring thaw will last into the summer. He clearly wasn't promising anything yesterday.
"Once I step between the white lines, I can't control what people think of me," Belle said, "but I can hit home runs, drive in some runs, steal a few bases and make a couple of spectacular catches. That's all I'm concerned about. The image thing will take care of itself."
Pub Date: 2/21/97