For Whom the Belle Tolls: Media Manipulation and the Legacy of Albert Belle
Christopher James - January 17, 2006

I don't think people realize that being a professional athlete, you're constantly bombarded at all angles. You really have to be protective of yourself because there are a lot of people who will take advantage of you. I was very guarded and very protective of myself. It's unfortunate you have to be like that, because there are people out there who will take advantage of you. It's just the way our society has come. There's a lot of athletes, including myself, who have done some great things for the communities around America but they just haven't gotten recognized because maybe something negative happened that overshadowed it. You can do 99 great things and if you do one bad thing, the one bad thing outweighs the other 99.
- Albert Belle, The Lafayette Daily Advertiser, June 17, 2005

We so often see baseball players solely through the eyes of the media. We see clips on Sports Centre, we hear rumors and wild stories, accusations of cheating, and are left with a skewed vision of men we’ll never meet to verify these stories. What reporters choose to report is out of our control, where they look and what they ignore, what they fail to tell us and why are questions many fans ask themselves.

They are questions I asked this week when the Hall of Fame voting results were announced, and Albert Belle picked up barely enough votes to stay on the ballot. I watched Albert Belle, I followed his career closely, I knew his stats, his potential, his shortcomings. We all knew his shortcomings; if you read a newspaper, watched sports reports, or checked in to espn.com during the mid to late 90’s, you were bound to hear about Belle’s Halloween incident, or his run in with a female reporter before a World Series game, or how he threw balls into the crowd. You were bound to hear that he didn’t hustle, and he couldn’t field, and that he was surly and mean and hard to get along with. It was like, as Belle said himself, he was an ax murderer. I remember reading an article that Dan Patrick wrote on espn.com in 2001 when Albert was forced from the game due to a degenerative hip condition. I remembered the pathetic tone of the article, and the harshness with which Patrick said “good riddance” to Belle. You can still find it online at:

http://espn.go.com/talent/danpatrick/s/2001/0307/1135935.html

Funnily enough, it’s called Belle has been the Anti-Puckett. Give it a read. I did, after five years. Consider these three quotes:

An arthritic hip is the cause of Belle's demise, but the lack of fanfare is his own doing. I met him many years ago when he was known as Joey Belle. He approached me at the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium. He was curious about why we were there. We had a 10-minute, off-camera chat.

I liked him. He obviously had it in him to be personable. Later on, when the media became the enemy, my feelings about him changed. Not in any big way. He just wasn't one of the good guys anymore.

The objective reporter tells us that he liked Belle when he first met him as young man. He and Belle had a nice “chat” off camera, and Patrick appreciated that. However, when Belle made the media “his enemy” (no explanation about why or how this happened), Patrick changed his mind, and realized that the nice young man he had chatted with was “not one of the good guys”. Not one of the good guys, because, apparently, he had stopped having ten minute chats with strangers before games. But maybe I’m reading too much into this, let’s move on,

...my job can't change my human nature. I have always tried to cheer for guys with good stories. And I try to make sure that I don't ever root against anyone. But let's be real. Belle was a surly and unresponsive player who cared little about what sportswriters and broadcasters needed to do their jobs.

As a result he was not well-liked. His troubles now will not engender the sympathy that other, more amiable players would receive.

Think of when glaucoma took down Kirby Puckett. The baseball world openly mourned the loss of one of its best ambassadors. Column after column extolled Puck's wonderful personality and remarkable statistics and accomplishments. And this year Puckett will enter the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. His numbers were fine but not outstanding. It would not have been an outrage if he had to wait a year or two for induction. But good will goes a long way.

So Patrick tried not to root against the not good guys. Well that’s big of him, not to skew his stories based on his personal feelings...oh...no wait...he follows that up with “Belle... cared little about what sportswriters and broadcasters needed to do their jobs.” Oh, so in that case, screw him. If he didn’t care about what sportswriters needed to do THEIR jobs, then he is even worse than a "not good guy", and undeserving of the sympathy reserved for Puckett.

He glories over Puckett’s imminent induction into Baseball’s Hall of Fame, on the first ballot no less. Baseball writers determine who is enshrined, and even though, by Patrick’s own admission “Puckett’s numbers were fine but not outstanding”, and “it would not have been an outrage if he had to wait a year or two for induction”, no worries, Puckett would be inducted overwhelmingly, because “good will goes a long way.” Forget stats, forget how one plays the game, the Hall of Fame is about how good a person one was.

Now I’m confused, by good does Patrick mean the good Puckett did for MLB when he was charged with felony false imprisonment and a gross misdemeanor sexual conduct? No, he was cleared of those charges. By good, does he mean the good husband and lover Kirby was when he was cheating on both his wife and mistress (according to SI), and beating on his wife? Let’s go to the SI piece:

His ex-wife told SI, "Over the years ... Puckett had also tried to strangle her with an electrical cord, locked her in the basement and used a power saw to cut through a door after she had locked herself in a room. Once, she said, he even put a cocked gun to her head while she was holding their young daughter."

Now, I’m gonna stop there. This isn’t a hack job on good ol’ Kirby. I just want to understand what kind of a judge of character Mr. Patrick is. He and his colleagues shoo Puckett in on the first ballot, regardless of his “not outstanding” numbers, because good goes a long way. Got it.

But Albert Belle, once the highest-paid player in the game -- who earned more in one year than the entire payroll of some teams -- will not have any tears shed for him by anyone who covers baseball. You won't hear it very often, if at all, but the essential reaction to this story is a firm "good riddance."

Like so many lessons in life, assuming Belle even cares about this stuff, this one comes too late. Belle can't do anything about his reputation now. If he's physically unable to perform, reporters don't have anything to talk to him about anymore. It's not like they have all these fond memories of pregame chats or post game beers in the quiet of a deserted clubhouse. You can't rehash something that never took place.

Belle made a lot of money. Money = Not Good Guy. Kirby, apparently, played for the love of the game, not the 43 million he racked up in salary over the years. That was for his wife and family. Oh, and power saws. Patrick then tells us that Belle “will not have any tears shed for him by anyone who covers baseball”, and though you won’t hear it nearly enough, “the essential reaction to this story is a firm "good riddance."”. Nice. Now that’s classy. To draw this brilliant piece of objective journalism to a close, Mr. Patrick decides to wax philosophical:

Like so many lessons in life, assuming Belle even cares about this stuff, this one comes too late. Belle can't do anything about his reputation now. If he's physically unable to perform, reporters don't have anything to talk to him about anymore. It's not like they have all these fond memories of pregame chats or post game beers in the quiet of a deserted clubhouse. You can't rehash something that never took place.

Belle didn’t learn his lesson, but he should have, and now it’s too late. Where he failed, as a man, and as a recovering alcoholic, was that he didn’t have enough post game beers in the clubhouse with reporters. If he only had...if he only provided Patrick with more “fond memories” on his off time, just maybe his career could be properly respected and represented, but alas...

Of all of the hack jobs I have read on Belle, I chose this one as an example, because good ol’ Dan Patrick, bless his beer swillin’ heart, didn’t even have it in him to be the least bit subtle about his motivation. He said what so many Belle bashers were too afraid to; Belle didn’t hang out with us, so we sabotaged him whenever we could—and a good job they have done of it too. 2006, five years after Belle retired, and I am still reading the same jabs; he was surly, he didn’t play hard, he was bad for the game and whatever team he played on. Same stuff. A scorned media never forgets, nor should they. Belle was a heel, right? A bad guy. Read the articles.

The intention of this piece was to compare Belle to Puckett, and prove that Belle had similar enough numbers and intangibles to draw more than the 40 measly votes he received, remember, Puckett drew 423 on his first ballot, but screw that. If you want to read that article, check this out:

http://espn.go.com/mlb/s/2001/0307/1136408.html

This is the only mainstream article I have found that has treated Belle fairly. Again, Puckett is painted at St. Kirby, but what can you do...he was cute and chubby after all. Rob Neyer gives you all the numbers you need.

I changed my mind about what the focus of this story should be after reading the countless negative articles about Belle. I wanted to know more. I wanted to see Belle through a different set of eyes; those of the people who probably knew him best during his career; his teammates, his therapist, and himself.

I could paraphrase, but they say it better. I’ll draw conclusions later. Here are some of my favourites, and be forewarned, this is gonna be plenty biased. Just evening out the road I reckon. Let’s look at that rage first:

People are shocked when I say Albert is a nice guy. But it's the truth....The only problem Albert has had is he's too competitive. When he gets involved in a game, a competitiveness comes over him that's almost dangerous.
- Mark Guthrie, Minneapolis-St.Paul Tribune, October 13, 1995

He's really a sweet guy. He's like a 12-year-old. But when he's on the field and 0 for 3, I don't recommend that you talk to him. Sometimes he throws the cooler around. Sometimes he breaks phones in the clubhouse. There are cookies all over the place. This guys is so unbelievable, he can go 3 for 3, go into his last at-bat and pop out, and he's still throwing cookies around.
- Omar Vizquel, Associated Press, October 23, 1995

Albert has a very intense personality and that can be a double-edged sword. It contributes to his success, because he's so driven, but it's not something you can just 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's wound up affecting other parts of his life, but it's made him a Hall of Fame-caliber player.
- Paul DePodesta, San Francisco Chronicle, August 4, 1999

Coach:

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.
- Skip Bertman, Sports Illustrated, May 6, 1996

From his shrink:

Albert is a brilliant guy, and he's a lot more complicated than he's been portrayed. . .He was a perfectionist in a game which is built upon imperfection. When I first got in touch with Albert in 1990, he was obviously a terrific talent, but it was clear that he couldn't deal with the frustration of baseball.
- Rick Woolf (sports psychologist who counseled Belle for five years), The Village Voice, May 9-15, 2001

And From Albert himself:

In the past I've tended to overreact. I was sure I'd be a superstar by the time I was 21. Baseball messed up my plan of life. When I fail I get upset. Sometimes I get upset too quickly, without thinking of consequences.
- Sports Illustrated, June 24, 1991

Ok. This isn’t rocket science. We have an intense, competitive guy, who is a perfectionist, and who, in his own words, tended to overreact to failure, even slight failure, as Vizquel points out. Now let’s remember that baseball is a game that rewards players who fail to hit the ball 7 out of 10 times. Can you see where a problem might arise? Me too. Not the media though. Belle is surly. No simple analysis necessary.

Let’s move on to Belle Myth #2. He is a pox on any team, and a poison in the club house. Teammates, please:

I really don't get involved in perceptions. We're all different, and that's what makes it interesting. Being judged on the things beyond what you do as a baseball player-sometimes I don't think that’s necessarily right. Maybe you don't have the full story. When I come out here, I look at Albert as a teammate, I look at him as a baseball player. I look at how he comes to bat and how he approaches his job. He's someone you really appreciate when he's on your team. He's a 50-homer guy, a 140-rbi guy. He wants to play everyday. Who wouldn't want that? I have a lot of respect for him. Playing against him and watching how he goes about his job. I'm happy I'm his teammate.
- Cal Ripken Jr., Sports Illustrated, March 8, 1999

I don't care what people said about his attitude and about what he did off the field. . .A lot of that had to do with the way he prepared for the game. He was very intense about getting ready to play. But he was an outstanding player. That's what I care about.
- Marquis Grissom, USA Today., March 14, 2001

Some people claim he's not great in the clubhouse and that he's selfish. . .To me, that's not correct. He was a hard-nosed player, and in many ways he was a real leader. A lot of people didn't see the good side of Albert.
- Chuck McElroy, USA Today, March 14, 2001

Coaches and higher-ups, let’s hear about his work ethic. He doesn’t hustle, right? I’ve read that like a million times. Oh, and he doesn’t care about his defense. Am I right?

I was quite taken aback when I spent some time with him, how articulate and candid he was about everything. He looked me right in the eye and said, 'I'll be the first one here and the last one to leave. I study film, I take my own notes and I play every day.'
- Ray Miller, March 8, 1999

If a guy's playing a lot of games, like Albert, he sometimes runs out of gas. You're just worn down, so it doesn't look like your hustling. But Albert hustles, trust me.
- Jerry Manuel, Sports Illustrated, June 21, 1999

He's been basically what we expected. . .He's been better defensively than I thought he would be. He has a good arm. There's much too much made of his defensive shortcomings.
- Frank Wren (Orioles GM), Washington Post, August 31, 1999

It's been my experience in Cleveland that Albert worked very hard on his defense. He cared about it. I've watched him here in camp already and he's showing the same work ethic. He's improved greatly in the outfield because of his work ethic.
- Mike Hargrove, USA Today, February 25, 2000

But he was a jerk to opposing players. Remember Vina? What about that Belle, why were you such a jerk?

In baseball, I don't fraternize with players when it's time to hit. I'm preparing for the game. It's the most important time of the day. And I know if I don't hit, I won't have a job in the big leagues. That's why I tend to get very upset when people try to talk to me.

I notice a lot of hitters fraternize with pitchers. I see guys laughing and giggling before the game. These are the same pitchers who are trying to beat them. . . . I've never seen Roger Clemens talking to hitters before the game. Bob Gibson was the same way. Man, I don't even see Maddux playing golf with hitters.
- Baseball Weekly, March 8, 2000

Right. So former teammates, including universally renowned “good guy” Cal Ripken, respect Belle’s work ethic, his leadership, and his baseball ability. Ripken even mentions that he has respect for Belle because he wants to be out there every day. Not bad. His coaches praise his...gasp...candor, work ethic, and...defense? No way. I don’t believe it. Manuel debunks the ‘hustle’ myth, and Miller brings to light the too often unreported fact that Belle was a professional hitter. He studied film after games and took notes; he worked on his shortcomings so that he could draw closer to the perfection he sought. As far as his on field demeanor, if the press read their own interviews with Belle, he makes it crystal clear that he likes old school baseball—no chumming around with the enemy. He mentions Gibson, Clemens, and Maddux. Decent guys to look up to, no? Fair enough, his teammates and coaches liked him, and he can explain why he wasn’t Mr. good times with the other players. That doesn’t take care of the big ghost in the room. THE MEDIA. Why was he such a jerk with the press? Let’s look back at Mr. Patrick’s desires; he liked Belle when he chatted before the games on his own time, but not when he didn’t. Let’s see what Belle has to say on the subject:

I'm the kind of person that as long as you respect me and don't distract me before the game, then I'll respect you in return and accommodate you after the game. Sometimes the situation dictates that I talk, but everybody should understand I'm not going to talk every day, whether we're in first place or last place.
- USA Today, February 25, 2000

There are certain things I like to go a certain way, specifically before a ball game. I go through a pre-game routine, and I don't like to be tampered with [by media members]. The Indians' public relations department didn't do anything to protect that situation, and that's why some not so good things happened, and I looked like the bad guy.

Before games, I was constantly being approached about interviews, and I stressed to the Indians' management that if they [media] weren't going to respect what I do before the game, then I wasn't going to respect them after the game. I later found out that the administration wasn't doing its part to make the media aware that I wouldn't be available before a game. – Ebony, May 1997

I have a tendency to keep people at a distance. That's my personality. Only a few people are really friends. A lot of time I really don't trust people. Because of what happened in the past, I don't trust a lot of people. I keep my guard up
- The Sporting News, February 26, 1996

Grissom said something about this earlier, didn’t he? Belle had a pre game routine that he held sacred. He told his team’s management about this, and told them clearly if he wasn’t left alone to prepare by the media, if he wasn’t respected, then he wouldn’t respect them. According to Belle, this message wasn’t always passed on by management, but regardless, he had a routine, he told his management that he needed media-free pregame time to prepare, and that wasn’t respected. Do you remember hearing anything about this? Me neither. I heard he threw a ball at a photographer who was ‘just doing his job’ before a game, I heard he was aggressive before games and impossible to deal with—a loose cannon—but never did I hear anyone justify or explain his behavior at all. Nope. Belle is a jerk and hates the media. Right Dan? The media was his enemy, simple as that. But what about this trust issue? That’s just an excuse, right?

When he had that problem with the fan in college, he got absolutely torn apart. . .And after he came up to Cleveland, they hammered him again when he had another run-in. . .It just totally put the man against the media, because a lot of writers, all they wanted was to find out what was wrong with Albert.
- Victor Baldizon (SI photographer), The Village Voice, May 9-15, 2001

The college incident is old news that I won’t get into, but you can understand how the man might shy away from the media, can’t you? But that’s a part of the job, he’s trained to deal with the media...

The Indians didn't help me in dealing with the media. I think they wanted to keep my market value down. I'm moody. I know that. I've made some mistakes.
- March 1997

...or not. But what about those players that he didn’t chum around with...he’s a jerk right? The media is right and Belle is wrong.

Just look at his numbers, that's all you have to do. He goes out and plays hard. He's really different from how he's portrayed; you guys don't give him a chance. Everything is blown out of proportion.
- Ken Griffey Jr., San Francisco Chronicle, August 4, 1999

The media definitely portrays Albert like that. Everything's always a negative, because there's only one side. To me, that's unfair. It's like they expect the worse -- and he's the exact opposite. He's a really good teammate all-around, and he gives 100 percent.
- Jeff Reboulet, San Francisco Chronicle, August 4, 1999

He comes to play every day, and that's all that matters to me. He gets a bum rap in the press. He's done some things that weren't smart, but I think he's a great guy. You certainly can't argue with how he goes about his business on the field.
- Tony Phillips, San Francisco Chronicle, August 4, 1999

He gets criticized a lot for not talking to the media, but that's indicative of his indifference to how he's perceived and whether he's regarded as a superstar or popular. All he wants to do is play baseball. As a teammate, he's the best you can have.
- Brady Anderson, USA Today, February 25, 2000

Ok. So other players can recognize that he was treated unfairly by the media too. They didn’t give him a chance, they only told one side of the story, and everything that was written about him is negative. I couldn’t have said it better. Misrepresented by the same media that he wouldn’t cater to, wouldn’t have beers with after the game. Odd, that. I wonder if there is anything else they chose not to tell us. You’re not gonna tell me Belle actually did good, are you?

When he came to the opening, the kids' eyes lit up and widened like saucers. . .It's moments like that in which you see the real essence of Albert Belle, something most people don't see. He's such a kind man, yet at times it seems everybody wants a piece of him. That's hard for him. He doesn't want to be a superstar and all that goes with it. He just wants to be a phenomenal baseball player.
- Mimi Shenk (director of special events for youth programs with the United Way), Toronto Sun, October 22, 1995, On Albert's role in opening a new ball field in a crime-infested neighborhood

The church and community will say "thank you" to Belle, who was inducted Saturday into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, said Dock Voorhies via e-mail. "Belle has awarded scholarships up to $4,000 to 38 recipients in the Shreveport-Bossier (City) area since 1993 totaling over $150,000 in education support," Voorhies said. "His long-standing commitment to education has been done with no fanfare or special recognition."

Did Belle care about kids? I thought he just chased them in cars. Albert?

I feel education is more important even now for the younger generation, than when I was younger. The kids really need to buckle down and get a good education. That's why it's so important to have computer programs and good tutoring programs, so they can have fun in school. It also keeps them out of trouble.
- Baseball Weekly, December 23, 1998

But why didn’t we hear about it?

There were a lot of times in the Cleveland and Chicago organizations when I did something, they wanted to make sure the camera was there. I really didn't want that. This isn't something my parents told me to do. Or something my family told me to do. Or do things for publicity. I do this on my own. I do this from my heart.
- Baseball Weekly, December 23, 1998

No. Don’t tell me he’s selfless too. I won’t believe it. A decent guy, a student of the game, a clutch player who put up huge numbers, and good teammate? No. Never happened. Plus, forget about the .933 career OPS (yes, 96 points higher than Puckett’s career mark), forget that 50 Homer/50 Double season, the .357 avg. in ’94, the 200 hit season. Forget that his 162 game average for his career looks like this:

AB   R    H    2B  HR  RBI   AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS
616  103  182  41  40  130  .295  .369  .564  .933 
Because he was on steroids, right? Jose, can I say that? He was. He was a jerk and on ‘roids.

Midway through the conversation, you think, This is Albert Belle? He is introspective. Bright. Funny. Patient. After learning that narcissist-turned-author Jose Canseco referred to the former Cleveland Indians slugger as "one of the very few superstars of that era who never used steroids," Belle laughed. "Great," he said Thursday during a rare interview. "I have a criminal on my side."
- The Arizona Republic, February 25, 2005

One of the very few not on steroids. Ah, what does Canseco know, he said that McGwire, Palmeiro, and IRod were on steroids, and clearly they weren’t, were they? This is all confusing now.

Five years after his sad exit from baseball all I read about Albert Belle is the same old hate-fuelled drivel. Never once is he given the benefit of the doubt, never once is he even given a chance to speak for himself. The material was out there. He had allies in baseball, he even had a few in the media who let Belle and his supporters have a window of opportunity to speak on a subject they knew best. I found plenty of published material which paints Belle as a boon to baseball and fine addition to any clubhouse. An All-Star, worthy of praise, and perhaps even a little pity considering his plight. Was any of this referenced? Did anyone have a kind word for the career of Albert Belle? Were his stats Hall worthy? Was he perhaps misunderstood and sabotaged? Forget it. I’ll give the last word on the subject to Belle himself for a change.

You can't take away what I did on the field; you might not acknowledge it, but you can't take it away. If I didn't get someone's vote for MVP because I didn't give them an interview, then I didn't want their vote.
– Ebony, May 1997

Right. Keep your pity, your Hall of Fame, your nice articles. They don’t change what Albert Belle brought to the game of baseball. Whatever is written, good or bad, can’t take away what he did on the field. That’s it. Give’m a good send off Cal, the one he deserved in the first place.

He always wanted to be the best. His intensity at the plate was almost unparalleled. Even to see him at the end, trying to battle the injury, showed how much heart and commitment he has. He just doesn't give up. That's a quality you admire.
- Cal Ripken, USA Today, March 14, 2001

Nuff said.

Special thanks to www.albertbelle.net for many of the quotes used here.