Albert Belle's sad exit

He played well enough to get to Cooperstown, but his personality and attitude will consign him to obscurity.

Published March 14, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

One of the greatest ballplayers of the last 20 years went down for good the other day from a hip injury, and forget the bang, I don't even think I heard a whimper. Albert Belle, a better ballplayer than Bill Mazeroski, Kirby Puckett or most of the other players elected to the Hall of Fame in the previous decade, will probably never play again, which means that we are spared the spectacle of his long face and somber stare at a Cooperstown podium in 10 or 11 years. What a relief! Suppose they gave a Hall of Fame induction and nobody came?

Don't, as many sportswriters are doing, hedge for a moment on whether Belle has performed well enough to be worthy of the Hall of Fame. There is simply no argument on that count. Belle played for 12 major league seasons and hit 381 home runs -- that's a hard argument to beat right there. Actually, it's far more impressive than that. In his first two seasons Belle played in just 71 games and hit eight homers. This means that, essentially, Belle played 10 full seasons in the bigs and hit 373 home runs. That's right, he averaged 37 home runs a season, and that includes last season, with Baltimore, when that hip held him to 23. I'll bet there aren't five players in baseball history that have done that. It's a good thing that he didn't play for at least two or three more years, even at last season's slowed-down rate, or he'd have approached or exceeded 450 home runs -- and then they'd have to let him in.

It isn't just the home runs; Belle is not Dave Kingman. Belle's career batting average is just a few points under .300; he led the league in total bases three times, slugging twice and RBIs three times. He drove in more than 100 runs for nine consecutive seasons -- including one shortened by a strike. Before he hurt his hip, he was an OK base runner and capable outfielder.

Unfortunately, the throw he'll be best remembered for was one made on a fan named Jeff Pillar -- I'm using the term "fan" here in its most generic sense -- who in 1991, when Belle was playing for Cleveland, yelled from the Municipal Stadium fans, "Hey, Joey, keg party at my place after the game, c'mon over." Belle had been battling a drinking problem, which is something Jeff Pillar, who thought the $10 ticket he bought entitled him to emotionally torture Belle, was well aware of. Joey Belle, as he was known then, threw a strike into the seats and nailed Pillar in the chest, which just goes to show what even an outfielder with a mediocre arm can do when focused. That Pillar got what was coming to him did not -- nor should it have -- deter Major League Baseball from coming down hard on Belle, who changed his name back to Albert, his real first name.

Albert tried to turn over a new leaf and never quite got there. The memory of the throw and his sullenness with reporters cost him the 1995 MVP award to Mo Vaughn, a polite, articulate, considerate man whom Belle outhit by 17 points and 11 home runs, and, oh yes, Belle's Indians won the American League pennant. There have been incidents since then, a tirade with a manager here, a collision with an infielder (whom he outweighed by 40 pounds) there. There was also a ball thrown at a reporter ... oh, sorry, that was back when he was Joey. And then there was the corked bat back in '94. And what was that all about, anyway? Here's a guy who needs cork like Hugh Hefner needs understanding.

So what can we say about Albert Belle before he slips away from us forever (for surely we'll never see him dropping by ESPN for commentary, or popping into the broadcast booth to swap yarns with Bob Costas)? He gave us a lot of thrills, but how long will even Cleveland fans remember him? How long will anyone remember him beyond the ball that he threw at the fan?

For nearly a decade Albert Belle was one of the greats, not Babe Ruth, quite, but surely up there with Jimmie Foxx, and if he had taken the effort to let us know him a bit, let us inside, or at least shown us that he was happy, for God's sake, to be young and wealthy and so great at a game we all fantasize about playing, then he'd probably get the plaque in Cooperstown that his efforts earned him. As it stands, he'll have instead one more reason to be bitter, one more grudge to hold against the game that he seemed to think was out to get him, the self-fulfilling prophecy his whole career seemed to be heading for from the start. You couldn't call what happened to Albert Belle tragic, but it certainly is a shame.

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The greatness of Troy Aikman

I usually don't get much mail in anticipation of a story -- I haven't had time to piss anyone off yet. But I've already gotten a week's worth of mail asking me if I'm going to write something about Troy Aikman. The timing was wrong for anything at length, but I've always wanted to say that if there was such a thing as an underrated superstar, Troy Aikman was it.

I always believed he was the real reason for the Cowboys' success; with all due respect to Emmitt Smith, there were a lot of great backs in the NFL over the years who performed as well as he did -- Barry Sanders, Earl Campbell, Eric Dickerson, just to name three off the top of my head -- who never won anything because their teams never had a great quarterback. Troy Aikman was a great quarterback. Not Joe Montana, perhaps, but good enough to win three Super Bowls, which I think places him in the top 10, all time. Fake experts point to his passing stats (TD passes, yards passing, etc.) and say, "His numbers weren't that great." To which I reply, you're looking at the wrong numbers. Start by looking at the number of rings he's wearing.

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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