Albert Belle stuns Indians with visit

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 Baerga, Sandy Alomar Jr. and

manager Mike Hargrove, reminisced about those days in the 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 wiffle 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 he 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.”