Today's Game: Albert Belle

All this week we're taking a closer look at the 10 people on the Today’s Game Era Ballot for the Hall of Fame.

So let me tell you an Albert Belle story, one I’ve been thinking about for, wow, I guess it has been more than 20 years now. This happened at Yankee Stadium, and it was before a game, and Belle was walking toward the dugout, wearing that cloak of danger that always seemed to envelop him.

This was a guy who, when his house was egged by some teenagers at Halloween, took off after them, threw full cans of Coke at them, might even have bumped one of them with his car (a lawsuit was settled a couple of years later).

This was a guy who, according to reports, was fined repeatedly by Cleveland for destroying clubhouses after bad performances.

This was a guy who threw a baseball at a photographer.

This was a guy who, Buster Olney reported, was called Mr. Freeze, because he liked the clubhouse to be kept frigid, and one time, when the temp was turned up, he stomped to the thermostat, lowered it to 60 and then smashed it with his bat so that it would stay there.

This was a guy who was so insistent on not just avoiding but intimidating the media that one reporter wrote: “Albert Belle exclusively glared at the New York Post.”

This was a guy who broke up a double play by sending Fernando Vina into space with a forearm shiver.

This was a guy who cursed out reporter Hannah Storm during the World Series.

This was a guy who (back when he was still somewhat bizarrely called Joey) got pulled in the middle of a College World Series game after throwing his bat and helmet and batting gloves. When LSU coach Skip Bertman sent in a defensive replacement, Belle threw his glove. When he got into the dugout he threw his hat.

“I’ve tried for two years to help him,” Bertman said, and shook his head.

Yes, Albert Belle wore that cloak of danger always and everywhere.

[caption id="attachment_23720" align="aligncenter" width="489"] Belle could rake, but he wasn't winning any awards for congeniality.[/caption]

So, anyway, he was walking to the dugout when a kid in the crowd yelled out, “Albert, can I have your autograph?”

Kids do that all the time, as you know, but you had to respect this kid. Belle stopped in his tracks and glared up at the kid. It was one of those moments when you had to wonder: What would happen next? Maybe this would be The Grinch Who Stole Christmas ending! Maybe his heart would grow three sizes! There was always a deep hope among Clevelanders that something in Belle glowed beneath the ice. “He’s a good kid,” Bertman had insisted, and I once rode in a Shreveport cab with a guy who grew up with Joey and said that he was misunderstood.

“He would give you the shirt off his back,” the guy said.

Really? Every Clevelander I knew desperately wanted this to be at least a little bit true. In so many ways, Belle was the perfect Cleveland sports star — forceful, unapologetic, underrated, tough, impossibly brilliant. When Albert Belle was right, you couldn’t pitch to him. He crowded the plate, leaning so far forward that you wondered what break in gravity kept him from falling. He ate fastballs for fun. He spat on curveballs with disdain. His 1995 season was insane. That year, in just 143 games, he did what no one — not Ruth, not Bonds, not Williams, not Mays, not Aaron, not anyone — ever did. He hit 50 home runs and 50 doubles in the same season.

It’s insane to even think about it. Todd Helton ALMOST did it when Coors Field was a pinball machine (54 doubles, 49 homers) Lou Gehrig ALMOST did it when he was impossible to get out (54 doubles, 47 homers). Albert Pujols ALMOST did it (51 doubles, 46 homers).

Here’s the craziest part, though.

Belle probably would have done it in 1994 had the strike not happened. In 106 games, he had 36 doubles and 38 homers. With 45 more games, yes, he would have done the 50-50. In other words, this thing that nobody else in baseball history has done, Belle should have done twice in two seasons.

He hit the ball so hard, and he gave the Tribe — a longtime laughingstock in baseball — an edge, and Cleveland fans wanted so badly to love him. In fact, Cleveland fans DID love him, at least the ones I knew. The kid he might or might not have hit with his car? Well, hey, that’s what you get for egging a man’s house. The fury toward reporters? Eh, fans don’t care about reporters. The flying elbows, the out-of-control temper, the meanness?

Fans forgive a lot when you hit 50 homers and 50 doubles in a season and carry a team to the World Series.*

*As impossible as it is to believe, Belle did not win the MVP award in 1995. It went instead to Mo Vaughn, who did not do a single thing as well as Albert Belle. Well, they both drove in 126 runs. But Belle scored more runs, hit more doubles, more homers, walked more, had a better batting average, on-base percentage and 115 points more slugging percentage. But the writers gave the award to Vaughn, a much nicer person. This slight only made Cleveland fans love Belle more.

And Cleveland forgave Belle, they loved Belle, because fans can be like that. Then Belle skipped town for Chicago and more money, and the fans turned hard, threw batteries at him, threw coins at him, booed and hissed him at the All-Star Game in Cleveland (where he refused to play). Because fans can be like that, too.

When Albert Belle looked up at that kid in New York who asked for the autograph, I looked at Albert Belle. I tried to find just a hint of that soft underbelly. As far as the Hall of Fame goes — Belle’s career was too short. He was a subpar fielder and a below-average baserunner. It’s hard to give him too many points for intangible contributions. But he sure could swat for nine seasons, and if he had done that for four or five more years, there might have been a day for him to glare at the crowd in Cooperstown. But he called it quits at 32, and he’s had a rough time in retirement (he was arrested this year for DUI and indecent exposure), and most people who remember Belle don't remember the titanic homers, the impossibly hard doubles, the menacing way he stood close to the plate and just dared a pitcher to challenge him.

“Albert, can I have your autograph?” the kid yelled.

“Maybe if you had said, ‘please,’” Belle grunted, and he disappeared into the clubhouse.