GOODYEAR, Ariz. — The hair and beard are mostly gray. The scowl is gone, a smile in its place.
Albert Belle still casts a formidable shadow over the Cleveland Indians, and Tuesday the contentious slugger — who was once the most intimidating hitter in baseball — made a surprise visit to the team he left 16 years ago and had disconnected with completely.
Laughing easily, Belle leaned against a wall as the morning sun began to burn through above the Indians’ complex, and along with former teammates Kenny Lofton, Carlos Beltran, Sandy Alomar and manager Mike Hargrove, reminisced about those days in the ’90s when the Indians ruled the AL.
They talked about the comeback wins, about the time Belle famously looked at Boston’s bench and flexed his biceps after hitting a playoff homer, and about getting Cleveland back to the World Series after a 41-year wait.
For a few moments, it felt like 1995 again.
“I came to see the guys,” the 45-year-old Belle said. “It’s good to see them again.”
Shortly after arriving, Belle visited the clubhouse and was introduced to some of Cleveland’s young players who couldn’t wait to meet a player many of them had only known through TV highlights.
“He was my favorite hitter,” said closer Chris Perez, showing off a ball that Belle signed for him on the sweet spot. “Him and Frank Thomas.”
With Lofton and Baerga serving as escorts, Belle was then introduced to infielder Jason Donald, who did a perfect imitation of Belle’s batting stance he perfected while playing whiffle ball as a little kid.
“He thought it was a good one,” Donald said later. “He liked it, I wanted to meet him. He was such a good player and such a big part of this organization.”
Back outside, Belle posed for pictures with his former teammates and Hargrove.
“Murderer’s row,” Lofton yelled.
It was Baerga’s persistence and urging that convinced Belle to drive over from his home in Paradise Valley, where the man whose presence in the batter’s box once rattled pitchers nerves, is now a stay-at-home dad raising four daughters.
“Mr. Mom,” he said.
Funny thought, a domesticated Belle.
“I waited until I was done playing to get married and then settle down and start a family,” said Belle, forced to retired in 2001 because of a bad hip. “I don’t know how guys do it, have a family and try to play baseball, man. It’s tough. Facing (David) Cone and (Roger) Clemens was easy compared to being a dad. It seems like all the kids get tired and cranky at the same time.”
Just like their dad.
Cranky would be a polite way of describing Belle, who in his prime had few rivals — inside or outside the baselines.
Pursing his lips as he awaited the pitch, Belle could drive a baseball over the fence to all three fields. A five-time All-Star, he had his finest season in 1995, when Belle batted .317 and led the league with 50 homers, 52 doubles, 121 runs and 126 RBIs. He remains the only player in history to hit 50 doubles and homers in a season, and yet finished second to Boston’s Mo Vaughn in MVP voting that year.
If his career had not been cut short by injuries, it’s possible Belle would have made it to the Hall of Fame.
Assuming, that is, anyone would have voted for him.
Belle was trouble for almost anyone or anything in his path. He chased away kids who threw eggs at his house after he didn’t give them candy on Halloween, hitting one with his car. After a strikeout, he smashed the thermostat off the clubhouse wall, and once threw a ball and hit a photographer.
He was especially difficult for reporters to deal with, cutting short an interview, refusing to give one or using obscenities.
“I talked to the media,” he said. “They just didn’t like the words I gave them.”
Belle was the ringleader for the powerful Cleveland team that bashed its way to a 100-44 record in 1995 and won the AL pennant before losing to Atlanta in the World Series. The Indians had a stacked lineup with Lofton, Baerga, Belle, Alomar, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez and Hall of Famer Eddie Murray in their everyday lineup.
“Our ’95 team was pretty incredible,” Belle said. “The Yankees had a pretty good team when they won 100-something games in ’98. But I think our lineup was way better than them. It all started when you had a guy like Kenny Lofton at the top of the lineup. As soon as he’d get on base, he’d cause havoc and we were just licking our chops to drive in runs and have big innings.”
But because those Indians didn’t win it all, Belle believes that lineup gets overlooked.
“We probably would’ve gotten way more credit had we won the World Series that year,” he said. “We were the Cinderella team. All of America embraced us and I think everybody in Cleveland had some kind of Indians jersey or hat or something on. It was a nice run. We did a phenomenal job. I just wish we could’ve all stayed together to get a chance to try to bring one home. We never did.”
As Belle and Co. strolled and laughed their way down memory lane, Jason Bere, the former pitcher who now works as a special assistant for the Indians, walked outside and cringed at the sight of Belle, Lofton and Baerga together again.
“Didn’t you guys wear me out enough back then,” Bere said with a laugh.
Bere then couldn’t resist doing his own imitation of Belle’s swing before paying the former Indians a huge compliment.
“I never saw the ’27 Yankees play,” he said. “But the ’95 Indians, whoa.”
Belle bolted Cleveland as a free agent after the 1996 season, signing a five-year, $56 million deal with the Chicago White Sox. Four years later, after taking a swing in camp with the Orioles, he was done.
“When I got hurt in 2000 and couldn’t play in 2001, I was pretty devastated,” said Belle, who finished with 381 homers, 1,239 RBIs and a career .295 average. “I didn’t watch any highlights or baseball until Game 7 when the Diamondbacks beat the Yankees. That was it. I watch highlights every now and then. I keep up with it now and watch a few games here and there.”
After leaving Cleveland, Belle was vilified by Indians fans, who showered him with fake money in left field when he returned to Jacobs Field for the first time.
He hasn’t been back since, but would like to return one day.
Time has changed him, healed him.
This late-winter reunion made him nostalgic, but not regretful.
“I look back and I wouldn’t trade anything in the world to do it all over again,” he said. “There’s some great memories and it’s good to see the guys. I had a nice career. I wish it had been longer, but I’m happy with the way things worked out.”