Within a season of contradictions, Albert Belle provided the perfect summary Thursday when the last nine years' most prolific run-producer chopped an infield single off the raised glove of Minnesota Twins third baseman Brent Gates. There was little impressive about the hit except it extended Belle's hitting streak to nine games, scored what became the decisive run in a 6-5 win and placed the Orioles right fielder in rarefied company.
The RBI was Belle's 100th and came eight days after he hit his 30th home run, against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Remarkably, Belle has done this eight consecutive seasons, twice in schedules abbreviated because of a players strike.
They are the only other players in major-league history to match or exceed Belle's run of consistency. None has played since 1945, the final year of World War II. In the game's history, there have been more players to hit 500 home runs, produce 3,500 hits or drive in 2,000 runs. Only twice during the eight-year run has Belle's streak been jeopardized. In 1997 he managed 30 home runs in his first year with the Chicago White Sox. In 1994, the players strike and a cork-related seven-game suspension limited him to 106 games. Belle still managed 101 RBIs.
True, Belle brought along his baggage when he signed a five-year, $65 million contract with the Orioles last Dec. 1. His pledge of cooperation with media and greater contact with fans was exposed during spring training as insincere.
True, the Orioles regret awarding him a three-year total no-trade clause as evidenced by an internal investigation of his behavior.
True, Belle has only enhanced his reputation as a slugger who often lands on top of the pile instead of moving the pile. He hit four home runs during the Orioles' disastrous April, went 43 games between his first and second double, sparred with manager Ray Miller over a perfunctory managerial move and celebrated his three-homer game against the Anaheim Angels on July 25 by denying statements by numerous industry sources, including friend Jerry Manuel, that he'd renounced his no-trade clause. No Orioles player has been booed longer and louder since Terry Mathews.
"Has Albert had a bad year? No. Has Albert had an inconsistent year? Yes," said Hall of Famer and Home Team Sports broadcaster Jim Palmer.
On June 9, the day of his run-in with Miller in Florida, Belle was hitting .244. Shortly before the All-Star break, his slugging percentage ranked sixth on a struggling club, and he didn't wrestle the team RBI lead from B. J. Surhoff until last week. A traditional second-half player who had hit .333 since his falling out with Miller, Belle entered Friday night having hit .500 with four home runs and 13 RBIs in his last eight games.
"Albert will get his numbers. He might struggle for a while, but he's always there at the end," Miller said last week of the only Oriole to occupy the same spot (cleanup) in the batting order in every start this season. "Look at the kind of years No. 3 [Surhoff] and No. 5 [Harold Baines and Jeff Conine] have had. I think a lot of that has to do with Albert being there."
When a public relations official approached Belle about discussing his achievement and his season, Belle abruptly waved the employee away. No contradiction there.
"The definition of a Hall of Fame talent has always been consistency and whether he is one of the dominant players of his era," Palmer said. "Albert qualifies on both counts. Measured against much of his career, this hasn't been a good season. But 30 home runs is still 30 home runs."
At 33, Belle appears a first-ballot lock for the Hall despite the personality quirks that may alienate some voters. He stands at 354 career home runs and possesses an excellent chance of reaching 400 next season and 500 before his contract expires after the 2003 season. Indeed, Belle carries 25 more home runs and 330 more RBIs than did Mark McGwire at the same age. Belle has never visited the disabled list.
"Albert plays every day, even when he's hurt," said Palmer, an occasional critic of Belle's this season. "It's not like Albert is going to tell anybody when he's hurting, but to play every day for as long as he has, you have to deal with some pain. He does so and the numbers are there."
Belle has not only dominated his era; he is a manifestation of it. He arrived early in a decade that produced 56 40-home run seasons and eight 50-homer seasons before this one. There were "only" 13 40-home run seasons and no 50-home run seasons during the 1980s.
Said Palmer: "This is definitely an offensive era, but I don't think that necessarily detracts from what he has done. The thing with Albert is his consistency. That's the most difficult thing in this game regardless of era."
General manager Frank Wren describes Belle's season as "a tough year" but hardly cites it as responsible for a fourth-place meltdown.
"I think this has been a difficult season for the entire organization, Albert included," Wren said. "In some ways, he's had to make adjustments."
Club optimists point to Belle's similar struggles in 1997, his first year after defecting from the Cleveland Indians via free agency. Belle batted .274 with 76 extra-base hits and 116 RBIs. He has rehabilitated his average this year to near .300 and is on pace for 68 extra-base hits and 115 RBIs. Belle followed his troubled year in Chicago with a breakout 1998 -- .328, 99 extra-base hits and a career-high 152 RBIs. Barring a shift in organizational thinking, Belle will not be asked to change positions again next year, a complicating factor in this season's rough start.
"I think we've seen Albert become more comfortable in recent weeks," Wren said. "But when you look at the rest of his career and the numbers he's produced, I think he's only scratched the surface."
Foxx. Gehrig. Ruth. Belle.