From Cleveland to Kansas City to Oakland, the American League again holds its breath this spring. Is this the year Albert Belle figures out April?
Just as Belle's massive production is one of the game's constants, his sluggish Aprils represent one of its most puzzling riddles. That Belle has constructed eight consecutive seasons of 100 RBIs and 30 home runs while virtually sacrificing one-sixth of the season testifies to his ferocious summers.
Two of the seasons within Belle's historically significant run were strike-shortened, including 1994, when he ran up 36 homers and 101 RBIs in 106 games. (Belle left that April with a .333 average, his highest for the month when given more than 17 at-bats.)
Entering this season, Belle had hit .271 with 47 home runs and 135 RBIs before May -- a frequency of one home run every 15.17 at-bats and one RBI every 5.28 at-bats. For the rest of the year, Belle has hit .300 with a home run every 14.72 at-bats and an RBI every 4.57 at-bats.
The disparity between Belle's Aprils and the rest of the season has become more pronounced since he left the Cleveland Indians for the Chicago White Sox in 1997. Terrible weather in Chicago and more spacious Comiskey Park are sometimes cited as conspiring against the Arizona resident.
"I hate the layered look," he once said, only half-joking.
In Belle's three seasons in Chicago and Baltimore, he has averaged one homer every 20.38 at-bats and one RBI every 6.31 at-bats in April, and one home run every 15.42 at-bats and one RBI every 4.63 at-bats afterward.
Given 600 at-bats with his recent April production, Belle would finish with a relatively ordi nary 29 home runs and 95 RBIs. His post-April ratio would leave Belle with 39 home runs and 130 RBIs over the same sampling of at-bats -- MVP-type numbers.
"I didn't feel great this spring," Belle admitted last weekend. "I'd feel like I was close for a few days then I wouldn't feel good at all. That's just part of the process of getting ready."
This spring's .229 average and two home runs in 70 at-bats included a disproportionate number of pop-ups and pulled ground balls. "I felt myself pulling off the ball a lot," Belle said. "I became impatient at times. But after a while, you're ready for it to start counting."
Hitting coach Terry Crowley and Belle have constructed a closer working relationship this season than last. Always reluctant to part with trade secrets, Crowley is particularly reserved about Belle. However, Crowley theorizes Belle's desire for results were frustrated by uncooperative weather. "It seemed like the prevailing wind was always into the hitter," he said. "If a guy's trying to power the ball that can cause a hitter to pull off the ball."
Many within the industry anticipate a breakout year for Belle similar to the damage he inflicted with the White Sox in 1998, his second year on the South Side.
Following a subpar 1997 season in which his run production was similar to last, Belle crushed 49 home runs, produced a career-high 152 RBIs and batted .328 in '98. But even then he had to overcome a sluggish start that left him with a .239 average, five home runs and 14 RBIs at the end of his toughest month.
Belle is a hostage to routine. Within it he finds a comfort zone that does not allow pre-game interference from media or fans. After every pitch of each at-bat he steps from the box, takes two practice swings, then settles back into the meticulously dug foothold he prepared before the at-bat.
Belle not only adheres to a strict daily schedule that allots specific times for eating, stretching and hitting but a yearly routine that prescribes time for weight lifting, golf and conditioning.
Mike Hargrove, Belle's former manager in Cleveland, knows that his right fielder's routines can appear "eccentric" to outsiders. But the manager also realizes their place in Belle's unwavering production.
"Albert has established a routine for himself over a number of years that's worked for him," Hargrove said. "You try to accommodate that within reason."
Even in the worst of times, the predictable nature of Belle's production has provided comfort. Last June 9, his batting average stood at .244 following a nasty and very public dugout confrontation with manager Ray Miller in Florida. He didn't manage his second double until his 48th game.
He complained to then-general manager Frank Wren about disruptions to his pre-game routine and incessant media scrutiny. A subsequent meeting with Miller and Wren in the manager's office produced a compromise in which Belle was allowed to take pre-game hitting indoors.
Coincidence or not, Belle began destroying the league. He hit .326 after the All-Star break, twice doubled four times in a game within a four-week period and was named the league's Player of the Month in September when he tied an Orioles record with 30 RBIs.
Asked about Belle's career tendency, Hargrove counters with an investment warning: Past performance does not guarantee future results. In this case, that's welcome.
"I sense that Albert's more open. That's good," said Hargrove, whom Belle, who rarely speaks to the press, recently praised on his Web site. For his part, Hargrove has played down any stories of past friction with the slugger. "It's especially good for his manager."
Opponent: Cleveland Indians
Site: Camden Yards
Time: 7: 05
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: Indians' Chuck Finley (12-11, 4.43 ERA in 1999) vs. Orioles' Sidney Ponson (12-12, 4.71)
Tickets: About 10,000 remain
Albert Belle's statistics during April, dating to 1990:
Year Avg. AB H HR RBI
1990 .200 20 4 1 3
1991 .268 56 15 4 9
1992 .226 84 19 4 13
1993 .302 86 26 8 21
1994 .333 87 29 6 18
1995 .471 17 8 2 6
1996 .330 91 30 9 21
1997 .206 102 21 4 14
1998 .239 88 21 5 14
1999 .234 77 18 4 14