Belle's bat merits Hall consideration

Belle's bat worthy of Hall consideration

CLEVELAND -- Mercurial, misunderstood but singularly focused, Albert Belle possessed talent that made him the darling of Cleveland baseball fans in the middle part of the 1990s.

During his time with the Tribe, Belle put together a string of seasons that elevated him above any other player the organization had had since maybe Lou Boudreau's heydays. He was a man obsessed with success and knocking in runs, and his drive for perfection sat well with baseball fans in Cleveland.

Because, to them, Belle stood as a flesh-and-blood symbol of the rebirth of their franchise and of their troubled city. He was the brightest sports star they'd seen since Jim Brown retired in the 1965. He was also the most controversial.

Yet through it all -- the tiffs with media, the run-ins with fans or whatever -- Belle let his bat ride those downs and turn them into highs. He was one of the most dominant hitters of his era, and it is his powerful bat that should draw Belle, who later played for the White Sox and the Orioles, a large number of votes this offseason from sportswriters who select players for the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

In 12 seasons in the Majors, Belle put up power numbers that voters must seriously weigh. For those numbers mirrored the statistics of some of the most prominent sluggers of his era. He hit a total of 381 homers, 242 while wearing an Indians uniform. Dozens of those homers came at Jacobs Field when wins and losses hung in the balance.

Baseball fans in Cleveland have heard of "the straw that stirs the drink," a phrase that Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson made popular. But the same phrase could have been used to describe Belle and his eight seasons with the Indians.

An amateur who "slid" into the second round of the 1987 First-Year Player Draft, Belle arrived as an athlete from Louisiana State with plenty to prove, and he left the Indians organization for the White Sox after the '96 season with all the proving behind him. He had blossomed into a full-fledged star and become one of the highest-paid players in the game.

But Belle also left as an enigma, a player so intense that the flames inside him burned so white-hot that people often chose not to see him for what he was, which was one of the purest hitters the game had ever seen.

"Albert has a very intense personality, and that can be a double-edged sword," former Dodgers GM Paul DePodesta, who worked for the Indians organization in the 1990s, once told the San Francisco Chronicle. "It contributes to his success, because he's so driven. But it's not something you can turn on or off.

"No matter what, he is going to reach his potential as a player, and he is never going to have to wonder if he could have been better, because he's done all he can. It has wound up affecting other parts of his life, but it's made him a Hall of Fame-caliber player."

Belle was that kind of player, and his credentials will go up for Hall of Fame scrutiny this year for the second time. He's been out of baseball for six years now, but he hasn't been out of people's memory that long -- not in Cleveland.

Still, he remains as much of a mystery, absent his unambiguous statistics, as he was when he was forced to walk away from baseball because of a degenerative hip. He was a lot of things to a lot of people, not all of it good.

But is induction into Cooperstown about his play or about his high-wire personality? Which should Belle be judged on first?

"Just look at his numbers," Ken Griffey Jr. once told the San Francisco Chronicle. "That's all you have to do."

That's a point echoed by other Belle contemporaries.

"I really don't get involved in perceptions," Cal Ripken Jr., a player who is on the Hall of Fame ballot himself this year, said of Belle in a Sports Illustrated article in 1999. "We're all different, and that's what makes it interesting."

That difference will surely be interesting in Belle's case. But the difference can't mask certain realities about Albert Belle, the perfectionist.

"He's played well for me," Mariners manager Mike Hargrove, who managed Belle throughout his career in Cleveland, told the Associated Press in December 1999. "Albert is Albert; you're not going to change him."

Justice B. Hill is a senior writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.