You're walking up a wide set of steps, sun-drenched concrete
under your feet. The clubhouse door at the Cleveland Indians'
spring training complex in Winter Haven, Fla., pops open, and
through it tumbles the awesome personage of Albert Jojuan Belle,
the Indians' 29-year-old slugger. You see his face. It is
cherubic, intelligent, at odds with his reputation (which is for
surliness) and with the rest of his body (which is built for
war). He's on his way to the weight room, and he's falling into
the effortless half-trot of the elite athlete. His arms bend and
his shoulders rise, and he's about to pass you, a stranger, when
he says three words that let you know he knows there's life
beyond his own.
This is an article from the May 6, 1996 issue
He says, "How you doing?"
Albert Belle is capable of small kindnesses, and in small
kindnesses there are whole worlds.
Mostly we hear about his rudeness, his anger, his temper. He
once refused to shake the outstretched hand of Dr. Bobby Brown,
the former American League president. He once chased
trick-or-treaters off his property with his car, threatening to
kill them if he caught them. He once fired a baseball into the
chest of a spectator.
If you had the chance to ask Belle about these incidents, he
would tell you they didn't begin with him. Brown's repeated
suspensions of Belle were, to the player, unjustified, so why
should he shake the man's hand? The trick-or-treaters egged his
home and embarrassed him in front of his visiting parents. The
spectator goaded Belle, a recovering alcoholic, about drinking,
and the leftfielder snapped.
But Belle won't talk about the events of his life. He won't let
you find out who he is. Politely you ask him for an interview.
Earlier on this March day he said, "How you doing?" recognizing
you as a fellow human being. Now he knows why you exist. He
says, "SPORTS ILLUSTRATED can kiss my black ass."
Belle's friends, relatives and teammates are left to explain the
man, which is not easy. They can illustrate his perfectionism
(he has followed a homer with a trip to the batting cage, upset
that he didn't catch all of the home run ball), but they don't
know where it springs from. They can tell you about his intense
drive (he wants to be the highest-paid player in baseball), but
they don't know its roots. They say he is often playful and
loose (when you hear singing in the Indians' clubhouse, it's
often Belle), but they also say his capacity for anger is ever
present. They're wary of delving into the source of that anger,
but they know the feeling is real--and, to Belle, useful.
Last October, when the Indians played the Atlanta Braves in the
World Series, Cleveland lost the first two games. Belle had just
one hit, a soft single, in those games, but it was his bland
response to his ineffectiveness that left his teammates worried.
They wanted to see his anger erupt again, and his bat along with
it. In the aftermath of the second loss, Omar Vizquel, the
Indians shortstop, reminisced about Belle's heaving watercoolers
and smashing telephones. Kenny Lofton, the Indians
centerfielder, said, "Albert has not been as frustrated as I
want him to be. I want to see him break a bat." But Belle--or
Snapper, as he was known early in his career--spared the wood. He
went for a television reporter instead.
More than two hours before the third game of the Series, Hannah
Storm of NBC, along with other reporters, felt the leftfielder's
wrath in the Indians' dugout. According to witnesses, Belle
walked in and started shouting, "All you media a-------, get the
f--- out of here now." Most of the reporters left, even though
their presence was sanctioned by Major League Baseball. Storm,
preparing to conduct an interview, stayed.
"I'm talking to you, you a------!" Belle screamed at Storm. "Get
the f--- out!" Storm did not budge. Belle's tirade lasted five
minutes. Only when he was finished did Storm begin to shake.
Belle drove in his first World Series run in Game 3. In the next
game he hit a home run. In the game after that he homered again.
"He uses his emotions to propel him," says Frank Mancini, an
Indians clubhouse attendant and one of Belle's closest friends.
On Feb. 29, Major League Baseball announced that Belle would be
fined $50,000, a record, for his outburst against Storm. He was
also directed to undergo intensive anger-control counseling.
Belle was outraged at the fine. The next day, in Cleveland's
first exhibition game, he homered in his first at bat, off New
York Yankees ace David Cone. "Albert thrives on his anger,"
In 1994 Belle was suspended by Brown for seven games for using a
corked bat. When Belle returned to the lineup he was not
contrite, as another player might have been. He claimed he had
never used a corked bat. He said he was being singled out. He
was furious, and his bat sizzled. In the next 20 games, before
the players' strike ended the season, Belle batted .476 and
crashed 10 homers.
"He looks at a game as a battle," says Mancini. "It's war.
Anybody who's not on his team is against him. That's the enemy."
The most convenient enemy for Belle is the press. Newspaper
reporters, TV and radio interviewers and magazine writers are
often around the Indians' locker room. Belle cannot control
them, and he is a man, his friends say, who needs to be in
control. The press interferes with his pregame routine, Belle
says, and he is manic about his pregame routine. So he has taken
a defensive position: When notebooks and microphones hover at
his locker, he often becomes surly and rude. And then, Belle's
friends say, he wonders why so many of his press clippings are
On April 6, after photographers on assignment for SI had focused
on Belle during the opening week of the season in preparation
for this article, Belle threw two baseballs at Tony Tomsic, one
of the magazine's photographers on the field. One ball cut
Tomsic's hand when he raised it to protect his face. Tomsic was
treated in the Indians' clubhouse and did not file a complaint
against Belle, but after the incident came to light two weeks
later, Belle was summoned to the American League office in New
York City on April 24.
To Belle the most offensive thing about the press is its
intrusion into his personal life. He is a guarded individual,
and there are subjects he doesn't want to address in public. He
doesn't need or want attention. He wants to be measured solely
by his baseball accomplishments.
Belle's lone sibling, his fraternal twin, Terry, is his public
relations adviser. Like Albert, Terry has a good head for
numbers. He has an MBA, and he has been calculating how much
money his brother loses in potential endorsements because of his
bad press. Terry seeks to improve his brother's image. "Is this
story going to have the word alcohol or Halloween in it?" Terry
asks a writer.
Probably, he is told.
"Then he's not going to talk to you," Terry says.
Halloween is a reference to last Oct. 31, when several teenage
trick-or-treaters, after being informed by Belle's father that
there was no candy for them, pelted Belle's suburban Cleveland
home with eggs. Belle called the police and said, in a
tape-recorded conversation, "You better get somebody over here,
because if I find one of them, I'll kill them." Belle then ran
the teenagers off his property in his Ford Explorer. Later he
was found guilty of reckless operation of a motor vehicle on
private property and fined $100.
Alcohol is a reference to Belle's sketchy drinking history.
During the 1990 season he spent two months at a hospital called
the Cleveland Clinic, where he received treatment for alcoholism
and counseling in temper control. Since he left the program,
Belle has said, he hasn't had a drink. But his temper has
When he entered the program Belle was known in his family as
Joey, a shortened version of his middle name. He emerged from
the Cleveland Clinic as Albert, a name he shares with his
soft-spoken father, a retired high school coach. The new name
was supposed to symbolize a fresh start. The ballplayer's
strong-willed mother, Carrie, a retired math teacher and a
devout Baptist who remains a primary influence in Albert's life,
resisted the name change; she saw no reason for a second
beginning for her first-born son. But when he left the hospital,
he made a public statement under the name Albert Belle: "While
in the clinic, I discovered that I have had problems with
concentration, motivation, attitude and temper. I have found a
new way of life through the clinic's program and a 12-step
Some people who know Belle believe his aftercare statement was
disingenuous. Concentration and motivation have never been his
weaknesses. "When they coined the term tunnel vision, they had
Albert in mind," says Mike Hargrove, the Indians' manager. Some
of Belle's former coaches--in Shreveport, La., where he was born
and raised, and later in college--agree.
As for alcoholism, Belle's college coach and his mother, among
others, never saw any evidence that he had a drinking problem.
But during his first three seasons of professional baseball,
most of which he spent in the minors, Belle struggled with his
own expectations and became, according to a person with
knowledge of Belle's treatment, a closet drinker, imbibing in
the privacy of his room and sometimes showing up for work the
next day hung over and moody. In one tantrum, his last before
entering the clinic, he dislodged a porcelain sink from a
clubhouse wall and smashed it to pieces with a bat.
The Indians were eager to get Belle's psychological house in
order. They felt Belle could become a big-time big leaguer if he
could get his head together. Indians officials confronted Belle
and coaxed him into the clinic, where doctors and counselors
said he exhibited alcoholic tendencies. In time Belle came to
believe that himself. For a man whose pride is said to be
colossal, the admission of a flaw was wrenching.
The Indians were relieved. Alcoholism gave a socially acceptable
name to erratic behavior; it gave the Indians' management hope.
Carrie Belle never believed it. "Joey goes along with it because
if he doesn't, the Indians will dump him," she said after he
left the clinic. (She declined to be interviewed for this
story.) The Indians took Carrie's phone calls, heard her out.
But they were convinced they had the problem licked. They still
feel that way.
"He had a problem, and he came to terms with it," says John
Hart, the Indians' general manager. "That's in the past. Albert
Belle is the most popular player in Cleveland. He does what we
pay him to do."
The general manager is a practical man, not prone to
psychobabble. "We ask ourselves, What has this guy not done for
the organization, except be accessible to the media?" Hart says.
"He's done everything. We support our players; we are a family.
Ninety-five to 98 percent of the time, Albert's a delight to be
around. The times he's not, we deal with it, internally, like a
family. We hope we have him for the rest of his career. He'll
probably play until he's 40. And he's going to have one of the
most prolific offensive careers in baseball history." Maybe so,
but three weeks ago the Indians broke off contract negotiations
with Belle after he reportedly rejected a five-year, $38 million
offer. The deal would have made him the second-highest-paid
player in the game, behind Ken Griffey Jr. Unless Cleveland
re-signs Belle, he will be a free agent at the end of the season.
Belle is the rare modern player who is actually a student of
baseball history. He knows numbers, knows what Hank Greenberg
and Jimmie Foxx and Henry Aaron had accomplished by the time
they were 29. "He knows his baseball history because he wants to
be part of baseball history," says Dan O'Dowd, the Indians'
assistant general manager. "When he was a minor leaguer, like
most minor leaguers, he was selfish. Now he knows that great
players are usually associated with great teams."
Major league scouts and managers classify Belle as an adequate
leftfielder, maybe slightly below average, with an ordinary arm.
He runs well for a big man--he's 6'2", 210 pounds--and in one
season, 1993, he stole 23 bases. But his earning power comes in
the batter's box. As the Indians' cleanup hitter, Belle has been
central to the team's ascent over the past five seasons. During
that period he led all of baseball in homers, with 186, and was
second in runs batted in, with 563, only one short of Chicago
White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas.
Belle hits for average (he's a career .291 hitter), he hits with
power to all fields, he's willing to hit behind the runner. He's
a righthanded line drive hitter with a classic compact stroke.
This season, as of Sunday, he is hitting .322 with nine homers
and 21 RBIs. Last year, in only 144 games, he had 50 homers and
52 doubles, becoming the first player in major league history to
reach 50 in both categories. And he plays his home games in a
park that doesn't reward righthanded power. He was the
runner-up, to Mo Vaughn of the Boston Red Sox, for last year's
American League MVP award. The prize is voted by members of the
Baseball Writers Association of America. Do you think Belle even
had a chance?
The Indians have no significant reason to worry about Belle's
strained relationship with the press, for Belle is immensely
popular in Cleveland. His popularity is rooted in his greatness
on the field and the victories it brings. There's even a candy
bar named for him. But the Indians worry whether Belle's
volatile nature will interfere with his productivity. They
recognize that his behavior, at times, makes no sense.
Consider, for instance, Belle's recent spring training
experience with Roy Firestone, the ESPN interviewer, who spent
three days in Florida in March gathering material for a profile
of the player. Belle was given a memo from an Indians public
relations official reminding him that the interview was
scheduled for the third day of Firestone's stay and noting that
Firestone would avoid Belle's least favorite subjects. In the
hours leading up to the interview Firestone was almost jubilant,
telling reporters in the Indians pressroom how eager he was to
portray a side of Belle that is seldom seen. Then Belle, without
giving a reason, blew off the interview. As Firestone and a
four-man crew waited, Belle jumped in his truck and split.
Firestone was furious. He picked up the phone. He called Belle's
agent. He called Hart. He called an official in the players'
union. After speaking with the official, Firestone relayed this:
"He says to me, 'The problem is, you think you're dealing with a
rational person. You're not.'"
Others have used stronger language. During the 1994 season Bud
Shaw, a sports columnist for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, wrote a
piece describing how Belle records the outcome of all his at
bats on index cards, which he stores in his locker. After the
piece appeared, Belle saw Shaw and went berserk, spewing
profanity and accusing the columnist of rummaging through his
locker. Shaw tried to stay calm; he told Belle he had never
touched the locker. Belle became angrier; he got in Shaw's face.
The two men were nose-to-nose, and it appeared that the
confrontation would become physical when Sandy Alomar Jr., the
Indians' peaceable catcher, wrapped his arms around Shaw and
pulled him away. The catcher, according to two people who were
present, told the newspaperman, "You don't understand. He's
Crazy is not a clinical term, and Alomar is not trained in
psychology. But the catcher's meaning was clear: You cannot know
what Belle is going to do. And Alomar likes Belle, likes him a
great deal. "He's one of the most popular guys on this team,"
Alomar says. "There's nobody in here who wants to produce more
than he does. Nobody wants to win more. He's just very intense."
And very complex. Even to his friends, Belle can be sharp and
biting, sometimes mean. But when Cleveland pitchers Tim Crews
and Steve Olin were killed in a boating accident during spring
training three years ago, Belle was a spiritual fortress for his
teammates, leading them in prayer.
Autograph sessions are a nightmare for Belle. He doesn't enjoy
signing, but he does it regularly, sometimes for an hour or
more. At the end of one recent session there were fans who had
not gotten autographs. One fan yelled, "What about me?"
Belle responded, unpleasantly, "You should have been here
earlier." Then he ducked into the clubhouse, where he spent the
next 10 minutes worrying about having been caustic with a kid
and wondering about the value of signing at all.
"When people only want things from you, that causes you to go
into a shell and lock everything out," says Belle's friend
Mancini. "He's done that."
Mancini, one of Belle's regular golf and chess partners, says
the player has developed a fundamental mistrust of
people--clamoring autograph seekers and intrusive
representatives of the press in particular--because they always
want something from him, and he realizes that no matter how much
he gives, it won't be enough. "I spend four months a year in
Third World countries," Mancini says. "There are a lot of
beggars. The first time they ask you for money, you might give
them something, but by the fifth time you reach a breaking
point. So finally you say, 'No!' Then they don't come back.
That's Albert. If he doesn't want to give an interview or an
autograph, he says, 'No!' He says it in a way that you know he
Their friendship, Mancini says, is rooted in shared feelings
about the role of Jesus in their lives. (Most days Belle's only
jewelry is an ornate gold crucifix.) Mancini says the real
Albert Belle may be found on days off, when he's at his
Cleveland church, Liberty Hill Baptist, and when he talks to
teenagers at schools about the perils of drinking. Belle's true
self, Mancini says, is also revealed in his extreme closeness to
his parents and brother, and in his relationship with his
longtime girlfriend, Julie Shimko, formerly an administrator at
the Cleveland Clinic and now a graduate student. "He knows that
she doesn't want anything material from him," Mancini says. "And
she sees the good in the man: that he's loyal, caring and
Sensitive is not the first word most people associate with
Belle. It is the first one that comes to Mancini. "One time
we're in the batting cage, preparing for a game, and he's
incredibly focused and intense before a game," Mancini says. "He
sees something in my eyes, from a distance of 60 feet, and says,
'You're really down, aren't you?' And I say, 'Yeah.' And he
says, 'Your dad?' And I say, 'Yeah, he's really sick, because of
his drinking.' And he says, 'Do you want me to talk to him? I
know I can help him.' I've been around professional athletes.
Most professional athletes are just not like that."
Belle is not only sensitive. He's also funny. "He's very funny,"
says Dave Nelson, the Indians first base coach and a friend of
Belle's. "He's got routines." One is a rap song called Potbelly
Nellie that Belle composed and performs on bus rides. Another of
his routines is a demonstration of how Nelson's waistline has
expanded during his years with the Indians. Belle sprints to the
coach's box to depict Nelson in 1992 and then does a
heavy-legged trot to depict the coach now. Belle also does,
according to Nelson, a killer imitation of the coach's
Midwestern diction. Still, despite their friendship and their
constant, playful needling of one another, Nelson is not exempt
from Belle's tantrums.
"Albert's snapped at me," Nelson says. "He's gone off at other
coaches. You never know which Albert's going to show up.
Sometimes he's laughing with everybody, sometimes he wants to be
off by himself, doing the crossword puzzle. It's hard to
understand what makes him tick. He's extremely proud. He doesn't
say he's sorry easily. People want him to apologize with tears.
He's not going to do that. But there are more positive aspects
to him than negative ones. I love him."
Over the years Nelson has won Belle's trust. So have Lofton,
Mancini and Shimko. But few others have. Lofton and Nelson agree
with Mancini that mistrust is a fundamental part of Belle's
It wasn't always. Growing up in a middle-class section of
Shreveport, Belle gave no signs of becoming the public
misanthrope he is today. "I remember after one of Joey's high
school playoff games, he and Terry came running after my truck,
real exuberant and yelling, 'Hey, when's this going to get in
the paper?'" recalls Teddy Allen, then a young sportswriter for
The Times of Shreveport. "Joey was a good guy."
Which is not to say he was ordinary. "I brought him up to excel
in everything," Carrie Belle once said. At Huntington High he
ranked sixth in a graduating class of 266. He was an Eagle Scout
and an all-state baseball player, and every Sunday he was at
Galilee Baptist Church. (Today, a modest baseball stadium behind
the church is being restored and will be named for both Belle
and Riley Stewart, a Negro leagues player from Shreveport.)
People in Shreveport who know Belle say he was sheltered and
pushed by his mother.
"He wants to be perfect," Carrie once said. And when he wasn't,
he would throw bats, helmets, tantrums. Old baseball hands will
tell you that the game is about handling failure as much as
anything, and in this regard Belle showed little promise. Even
though his physical gifts were impressive, professional baseball
ignored him when he came out of high school, and few big-time
college programs recruited him. An exception was Louisiana
State, in Baton Rouge, about 4 1/2 hours down the road from
Shreveport. LSU coach Skip Bertman signed not only Joey but also
Joey spent three years at LSU, and in those years Bertman, who
is the U.S. Olympic baseball coach, sensed in him extreme anger
and low self-esteem. He thought Joey needed counseling. He knew
Carrie would have to approve it. She rebuffed him, Bertman says,
though Carrie denies ever discussing the matter with him.
According to Bertman, Carrie said, "People will talk."
Joey knew trauma at LSU. During his junior year Bertman pulled
him out of a game after he had struck out and flung his bat.
While Belle was standing on the top step of the dugout, pulling
off his batting gloves, a spectator yelled, "Nigger!" Belle
seethed, but he said and did nothing. Bertman tried diligently,
he says, to learn the identity of the offending spectator, but
he was unsuccessful. Later, according to the coach, Belle came
to believe that not enough was done on his behalf, and the
incident contributed to the mistrust that is so characteristic
of him. Carrie, Bertman adds, had a fundamental mistrust of
whites. Although Carrie denies it, Bertman says, "The attitude
she conveyed to Joey was, Don't let the white man sell you
short. Given the history between blacks and whites in this
state, it's understandable."
But what most upset Belle, according to Bertman, was that the
coach benched him during the 1987 College World Series for
repeatedly failing to run out balls and for throwing bats and
helmets. The pro scouts knew that Belle's stroke was a thing of
beauty, that his numbers were spectacular, that his commitment
to improvement was intense, that he was competitive in the
extreme, that he had big leaguer all but tattooed under the brim
of his cap. He looked like he would go high in the first round
of the draft. What the scouts couldn't understand was why
Bertman would drop his best player for the team's most important
The Atlanta Braves' scouts decided that regardless of Belle's
talents, they would not draft him in any round. They concluded
that Belle had no respect for anybody or anything. Other teams
became nervous, too. Belle was not drafted until the second
round, which might have cost him as much as $40,000 in signing
bonus money. Belle, however, believed it cost him more. He was
angry then, and he's angry still. After learning that a writer
had talked to Bertman about him, Belle told the writer, "What
the f--- are you doing that for? F--- LSU."
Others say Belle was changed by his LSU experience. Allen
covered Belle during those years for the Times-Picayune of New
Orleans. Early in Belle's rookie season in the minors, the paper
sent Allen out to catch up with Belle. The player didn't want to
talk. Allen had seldom known Belle to be silent. "But what about
the folks in New Orleans?" Allen asked.
"F--- the people in New Orleans," Belle said.
"Joey Belle, as I knew him, was gone," Allen says. In his place
was an enigma.
Bertman believes that for all of Belle's drive and intensity,
there's a basic aspect of his personality that is not suited to
the pressure of major league baseball, the pressure of
expectations, the pressure to perform, the pressure to satisfy
his mother. He rebels by being rude and disrespectful, even
antisocial. The Belle who uses corked bats, Bertman believes, is
the one overwhelmed by his need to succeed. Remove Albert from
the world of baseball, and he's Joey again, pleasant and witty
and smart. But with each home run, with every new success,
Belle's profession becomes a more central part of his identity.
"In his junior year, when the talk of the baseball draft
started, he realized for the first time that he was in a
position to make a lot of money as a ballplayer, and you could
see the pressure mounting in him," Bertman said. He had been
talking about Joey Belle for an hour now. The breakfast crowd in
a hotel dining room had cleared out.
"I always tried to do the right thing by him," Bertman
continued. "I know he hates me. If he needs that hate to
succeed, it's fine by me. I always liked him. He was a good kid.
He just had a hard time with the pressure."
The old baseball man made a fist and grimaced. "The pressure,
the pressure, the pressure."