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Measuring impact of the Belle legacy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Albert Belle did not answer a lot of questions during his spectacular and controversial 12-year major-league career, but he continues to raise them even as he prepares for life after baseball.

His playing career apparently came to an end last night, when the Orioles announced that doctors had determined his arthritic hip made him "totally disabled and unable to continue as a baseball player."

His baseball legacy remains open to debate.

The guy was one of the most productive hitters of his era, but will go down in history as one of the most reviled players of all time.

He was considered one of the game's most intelligent players, yet pulled one self-defeating stunt after another until he became a symbol of all that could be wrong with professional sports.

So what made him tick?

And why did he always seem to be ticked off?

It probably would take a busload of psychologists to figure that out. Belle grew up in a solid middle-class home, the son of two teachers. He was a good student at Louisiana State University, but his legendary temper would become his defining characteristic long before he was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the second round of the 1987 free-agent draft.

He climbed into the stands during a college game to get at a heckler, the first of several off-field incidents that would checker an otherwise stellar playing career. Belle was suspended for firing a baseball into the chest of a fan at Cleveland Stadium in 1991 and got in trouble again with a similar offense involving a Sports Illustrated photographer in 1996. He also was suspended after being caught with a corked bat during the 1994 season.

One of the most highly publicized blowups of his career came at the 1995 World Series, when Belle delivered an obscenity-laced tirade at NBC's Hannah Storm before Game 3, but the list of Belle's indiscretions is as long as some of the mammoth home runs that made him one of baseball's most feared hitters.

He could even get in trouble at home, once being fined $100 for trying to chase down a group of misbehaving trick-or-treaters with his car on Halloween.

"There were two halves to his career," said former Cleveland Indians executive Dan O'Dowd, who is the general manager of the Colorado Rockies. "From a performance standpoint, he was one of the most dominating performers in the history of the [Indians] franchise -- a run-production machine.

"From an off-field perspective, he was a very different individual ... very hard to figure out. He didn't allow a lot of people to endear themselves to him. He was a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

Early trouble, promise

O'Dowd was the first member of the Indians organization to deal with Belle's darker side. The Indians farm director in the late 1980s, he steered Belle through parts of three minor-league seasons, all the while butting heads with an extremely talented player who felt he was not advancing through the organization quickly enough. Three times over that period, Belle was suspended by the club.

And he apparently didn't cool down over the winter. He also was thrown off a Mexican League team in 1988 and was released by the Ponce Lions of the Puerto Rican Winter League in 1990.

"He was a handful," O'Dowd said. "Albert thought he should be further along in player development, and I didn't necessarily agree. But Albert and I had a respectful relationship. It was never personal."

There were demons, which the Indians tried to exorcise with a 12-step program of alcohol rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic in 1990. Belle, who had been known as Joey throughout his youth, came back a supposedly changed man. He asked to be called by his given name, Albert, and insisted his behavior would be governed more by his "spirituality."

Yet the outbursts continued. While his performance at the plate quickly established him as one of baseball's most dangerous hitters, his episodes of uncontrolled rage led to regular disciplinary action from the American League office.

Belle was suspended by the AL four times from 1991 to 1994. He also would be reprimanded for gambling and fined $50,000 for the tirade against Storm.

A lesser player might have worn out his welcome, but Belle clearly was a special talent. He had at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in eight consecutive seasons from 1992 to 1999, a performance matched or exceeded by three other players in major-league history -- Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx.

Cleveland resurgence

He may have been "Angry Albert" to the rest of the baseball world, but to the fans of Cleveland, he was the cornerstone of a baseball renaissance that would transform the Indians from one of baseball's all-time doormats into one of most dominant teams of the 1990s.

"Albert has put up some tremendous offensive numbers throughout his career," said Orioles manager Mike Hargrove, who also managed him for six seasons in Cleveland. "I would say Hall of Fame numbers. Baseball is going to miss people who can do those sorts of things.

"I know Albert at times did things that some people don't agree with, but they can't say he didn't give his best in every at-bat."

By some accounts, Belle should have been AL Most Valuable Player in 1995 -- the year the Indians made the World Series for the first time in 41 years -- but he was out-polled by affable Boston Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn in voting conducted by the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

Belle had the numbers. He led the AL that year with 50 home runs and tied for the league lead with 126 RBIs, leaving many to believe that it was his antagonistic relationship with the media that cost him the MVP trophy. Some voters discounted his performance because much of his run production came late in the season, when the Indians already held a commanding division lead.

It certainly didn't cost him any money. Belle was one of the young stars the Indians locked up with above-market deals in the early 1990s. By the time he was eligible for free agency after the 1996 season, the Indians had had their fill of him, but the White Sox signed him to a five-year, $55 million deal that made him the highest-paid player in the sport.

The Indians made a cursory attempt to re-sign him, but quickly dropped out. He had become more trouble than he was worth.

"Recognizing his talent, his quirks and, at times, his lack of maturity, we put a lot of effort getting Albert to recognize what we stood for," Indians general manager John Hart said then. "There was a series of incidents that put this organization into less of a light than it should have been."

The White Sox deal included a clause that allowed Belle a one-month window of free agency after two years if his salary fell out of the top three and the White Sox weren't willing to renegotiate the final three years of the deal. Belle took advantage of that opportunity to play the Orioles off the Yankees and sign a five-year, $65 million contract with Baltimore.

His stay in Baltimore was relatively peaceful. He was benched briefly after an angry confrontation with then-manager Ray Miller in 1999, but lived up to his tremendous offensive billing in his first season with the Orioles, batting .297 with 37 home runs, 117 RBIs and 108 runs scored. He seemed to be on the way to another typical Albert Belle season last year when his right hip began giving him trouble in July.

Beginning of the end

His offensive performance declined dramatically. He managed five home runs over the season's final three months, finally dropping out of the lineup for 20 games in September -- the first extended injury absence of his career.

The announced diagnosis was an inflamed bursa sac in the right hip, but the real news was much worse. Belle was suffering from a degenerative arthritic condition in his hip that promised little hope of improvement. It wasn't a Bo Jackson injury -- Jackson had to have his hip replaced after a vicious tackle in an NFL game -- but the outlook wasn't much different.

Belle held out hope that an off-season of rest and rehabilitation would allow him to return for the 2001 season, at least in the role of the designated hitter, but the first sustained activity in spring training left him sore and immobile. After he was scratched from four straight exhibition games, he told a reporter from USA Today that it would take "a miracle" for him to continue his career.

The Orioles put Belle through another set of medical examinations while front-office officials worked on an exit strategy that would assure the club gets the maximum benefit from the insurance policy on the contract -- about $27 million of the remaining $39 million guarantee.

It was no surprise when the club announced last night that Belle had been determined to be "totally disabled" and unable to continue his playing career.

During the first three weeks of spring training, Belle made a concerted attempt to smooth over his bumpy relationship with the media and the fans, cooperating with interview requests and spending time signing autographs.

Now, the big question is whether all the years of acrimony will cost him a chance to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame -- another honor bestowed by some of the same baseball writers he battled with throughout his career.

Teammate Jeff Conine said Belle's on-field performance -- based on his current numbers and projected performance over a full career -- should be the determining factor. Based on that, he said, Belle has earned a plaque in Cooperstown.

"Yes," Conine said. "I think you've got to take into consideration that he's 34 years old. He would have three or four more years in him if he had been able to stay healthy. No question that he would have had close to 500 home runs and 1,600 or 1,700 RBIs.

"It's not his fault his career got cut short. He dominated the 1990s like no other hitter."

New York Mets superstar Mike Piazza, at Fort Lauderdale Stadium for last night's exhibition game with the Orioles, also said Belle should judged primarily on his on-field performance.

"Albert Belle, no question, has left his mark on the game as one of the most dominating run producers of his time. As controversial as he might be, I don't think that will affect the mark he left on the game. One thing you can say: He wasn't boring."

The numbers are compelling. Along with the string of 30-homer, 100-RBI seasons, Belle is the only player to ever hit 50 home runs and 50 doubles in the same season (1995), an accomplishment he was so proud of that he wore "50-50" on his shoes the next year.

There is even a story to go with that. Legend has it that a high-profile teammate saw the numbers on Belle's shoes and asked him rhetorically, "What's that, you're chances of catching a fly ball?"

OK, so Belle wasn't known for his defense. He could butcher a ball with the best of them. But he had a strong arm and, before the hip injury, he moved well enough to play an adequate left field for the Indians and White Sox.

A Hall of Famer?

The Orioles would move him to right field, where he had his share of misadventures in front of the short porch at Camden Yards, but his defensive limitations were never dramatic enough to prompt the club to consider a move to DH. It would take the hip problem to force Belle into DH duty at the end of the 2000 season.

He never figured to be remembered for his glove anyway. He was a pure power hitter, one of the most dangerous ever to play the game. He was on his way to indisputable Hall of Fame numbers -- 500 home runs, 1,700 RBIs -- but will have to settle for 381 home runs and 1,239 RBIs. Good enough to make the argument for Cooperstown. Not necessarily good enough to force the issue.

Belle was not a sympathetic character, so he doesn't figure to engender a lot of sympathy on the way out of the game.

"Any time a player's career ends prematurely, it's sad," O'Dowd said, "but Albert has burned a lot of bridges along the way. Some of those bridges he might try to cross back over now, but that might be hard. Sometimes you have to live with the consequences of your actions."

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