CLEVELAND -- On an otherwise nondescript day at Indians camp last spring, a gray-haired, scruffy-faced, big-bodied man wearing a golf shirt and shorts stood in the center of the clubhouse near the snacks, either unnoticed or simply ignored by the players filtering in and out of the room.
Time was, a person could genuinely feel Albert Belle's presence in a Major League clubhouse. This is the man who once smashed a thermostat with his bat to permanently set it at a cool temperature (earning the nickname Mr. Freeze). A man who was once so upset about making an out that he retreated to the clubhouse and smashed the china plates that were set up for the postgame spread. A man who once chased a team intern out of the room with his bat when the kid had the gall to approach him about an autograph for charity shortly before game time.
That man is gone now. In his place, on this day, stood a retired stay-at-home father to four girls, a guy who spends his time not swinging bats but swinging golf clubs and not chasing down Halloween pranksters in his SUV but driving his own kids to and fro.
Mr. Freeze is now Mr. Mom.
As announced Friday, the Indians are inducting Mr. Mom ... err ... Belle into their team Hall of Fame. It is an honor that is long, long overdue. Jim Thome will join him, an obvious decision in a world that needs more obvious decisions. Frank Robinson is in, too, a tip of the cap not just to the man but to the moment when he announced his presence as the game's first African-American manager and his viability as a player-manager with a triumphant home run on Opening Day 1975. And Charlie Jamieson is in, a salute to an underrated contributor to the 1920 World Series squad.
But Belle is the real source of intrigue.
The only reason why the 49-year-old Belle has not yet seen his plaque hang in Heritage Park is that the Indians have never felt confident he'd actually attend the induction ceremony. And despite Friday's public proclamation of Belle as one of its all-time greats, the club is currently unsure whether Belle will be there for the July 30 pregame ceremony. Though Belle has popped up at Spring Training and the club's charity golf outings a couple times, attempts to engage him in past public observances of his and their glory days -- including the 2013 release of a bobblehead depicting his famous point to the biceps and last summer's 20-year anniversary celebration of the 1995 American League champions -- have been met with indifference or outright resistance.
Friday's announcement, then, can be construed as either an olive branch or a last resort. The fact of the matter is that a team Hall of Fame without the guy who ranks second all-time (behind only Thome) on the Tribe's home run list and who remains the only player in Major League history to have a 50-homer, 50-double season is laughably incomplete and had long since ceased to make sense.
So Belle is going in whether he wants to be there or not.
Consider this a public plea for Belle to be there.
Belle's standing with the team should not be reduced to a quiet and largely unnoticed arrival at the Goodyear, Ariz., camp, where I'm not entirely certain any player under the age of 30 had any idea they were in the presence of one of the most feared sluggers of the 1990s. Belle needs to come out of the woodwork -- or, rather, step out of the minivan -- and hear the roar of a Progressive nee Jacobs Field crowd that has long since forgiven his free-agent exodus and the many public blowups that made him one of that era's most controversial figures.
Baseball and Belle have been largely divorced from each other since he made his last plate appearance with the Orioles in 2000. Were it not for a degenerative hip condition, maybe we'd be talking about Belle in the context of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and not just the Indians Hall, but little of his post-Cleveland career lived up to the severe standards set by his 1993-96 output (1.040 OPS, 172 homers, 161 doubles and 504 RBIs in 566 games). And when he went away, he went far away, his only connection to the game coming in the form of the occasional unsolicited -- and highly entertaining -- rant to Paul Hoynes, The Plain Dealer's longtime Indians beat reporter, in the late 2000s.
Give credit to Kenny Lofton and Carlos Baerga, two other members of the 1995 club and the team Hall, for coaxing Belle into his first visit to the Tribe's spring camp in 2012. These men, along with Thome and Omar Vizquel and the rest of the cast of characters that made up that '95 team, reignited a long-slumbering fan base in a major, memorable and almost magical way, and the bonds formed from such a shared experience are not easily broken.
But getting Belle to branch out beyond those quick and informal appearances in Goodyear has been a struggle, to say the least.
So come on out, Albert, and bring the girls. Let them see what their dad and his mighty bat wrought. People in Cleveland have not forgotten the mesmerizing experience of watching you hunch over the plate, with the bat held at a firm 90-degree angle and your menacing eyes peering at the pitcher. They have not forgotten the way you dominated a Major League season like few hitters before or since. They want to see you and salute you and cheer you one more time.
And should you stick around to watch the game from a suite, I'm sure they'll let you keep the thermostat as low as you like.