The Albert Belle exploding plastic inevitable, which took off during the exhibition season with a flurry of homers and RBIs, crash-landed in the minor leagues last week. Belle, the Cleveland Indians' short-fused leftfielder, detonated manager John McNamara by loafing toward first base after hitting a double-play ball on June 6. "It was the most blatant lack of hustle I've ever seen," said Mac. Which is why this Belle now toils in Triple A at Colorado Springs, despite leading the Indians in homers (9) and RBIs (27).
Snapper—as Belle was called in Cleveland—was once the hottest prospect in baseball. Today, 10 months after a stay in alcohol rehab and six weeks after firing a ball into a heckler's chest and drawing a seven-game suspension from American League president Bobby Brown, Belle is just too hotheaded to handle. "In the past, I've tended to overreact," he says by way of explanation. He has been overreacting since he started playing at Louisiana State in 1985. There he was known as Joey (his family's nickname for him), and he got in trouble for throwing balls, bats and tantrums. He was pulled out of a dozen games before getting booted off the team for abandoning his post in right during a game to chase a fan who had been yelling racial epithets. Fortunately, two LSU teammates tackled Belle before he could take corrective action.
Belle's rep was so bad that one team's farm director was warned he would be fired if he picked Belle in the 1987 free-agent draft. Brave Cleveland took him in the second round. Since then he has been suspended or released six times in various summer and winter leagues for everything from insubordination to pelting a fan with a rock.
At close range Belle is boyishly likable. He has a ready smile and an easy laugh. "Joey is extremely smart," says his mother, Carrie, a high school math teacher in Shreveport, La. "He's great with figures and crossword puzzles. He could spell backwards when he was five. Did you know my Joey was an Eagle Scout? He took French in high school, finished sixth in a class of 266. I brought him up to excel in everything. He wants to be perfect."
Which could be the problem. In baseball you don't get much closer to perfect than 1 for 3. "I was sure I'd be a superstar by the time I was 21," says Belle, who's 24. "Baseball messed up my plan of life. When I fail, I get upset. Sometimes I get upset too quickly, without thinking of the consequences."
Belle was all right when he played well, but when he didn't, he got mean. He would take shots of bourbon and 151-proof rum, a lethal concoction whose effect he compares to that of lobbing a hand grenade down a chimney. Once or twice a week he would drink enough to scatter his bricks.
Joey Belle made Cleveland's Opening Day roster in 1990 but got farmed out in early May. When he trashed a clubhouse sink at Colorado Springs in June, the Indians recommended that he enter an addiction treatment center. He stayed 10 weeks and emerged calling himself Albert. "I'm a new me," he explained.
Ma Belle doesn't buy the liquor line. "There was no alcohol problem," Carrie says emphatically. "Joey goes along with it because if he doesn't, the Indians will dump him. There's nothing wrong with my boy. He just has a little temper, that's all."
The Indians don't have a timetable for Belle's return, but they have indicated that he'll stay in Colorado Springs until he proves he will hustle. Belle hit .333 in his first six games down on the farm and seems serene. "There's a lot less pressure," he says. "I'm more relaxed. I haven't really gotten hot yet, but someday soon I'll surely explode."
In his case, that may be an unfortunate choice of words.
Despite this pained look, Belle says that he's more relaxed now that he has escaped from Cleveland.