Father and son were waiting anxiously in the standing-room area behind the leftfield wall at Jacobs Field, watching the hometown Cleveland Indians play the Kansas City Royals. There were two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning in the regular season's penultimate game last Saturday when the kid turned to his father and said, "Albert's not going to hit 50, is he?" Pessimism dies hard in Cleveland.
Fortunately, this is the Belle Epoque. So the very next sound inside the Jake was the dulcet crack of Albert Belle's bat against hardball. The resulting Scud rocketed 60 feet over the youngster's head, traveled 405 feet total and very nearly exited the building altogether. Belle did hit his 50th home run of the season, and like nearly all of the previous 49, it was never in doubt. "Albert doesn't hit singles anymore," Indian manager Mike Hargrove says. "Albert only hits bombs."
With that final air strike, Belle became the 12th player in major league history to hit 50 or more homers in a season and the first since the Detroit Tigers' Cecil Fielder reached that plateau five years ago. "When I saw Albert in the dugout before that at bat, he was mad, and he said, 'I'm going to hit this home run and get it over with,' " said Cleveland second baseman Carlos Baerga. "After he did it, he was actually smiling. Albert doesn't do that very much, you know."
Until this year Belle was known mostly for his temper and erratic behavior, which earned him a suspension in each of the four previous seasons. As a metaphor for his predicament, a few years ago Belle tacked a Peanuts comic strip in his locker that featured Charlie Brown and Snoopy standing together on a golf green, a fierce tidal wave sneaking up behind them. Said Snoopy, "On this hole, you just have to ignore the water."
With each passing season there has been a significant improvement in the Belle curve. This year he was responsible for more big hits than the new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum across town—and nearly as many records. He destroyed Indian team marks with his 50 home runs and 103 extra-base hits, which included 52 doubles and one triple, and became the first major leaguer to hit at least 50 homers and 50 doubles in a season.
Belle's dingers actually didn't begin soaring in earnest until the All-Star Game festivities when, down to his final out in the semifinals of the Home Run Derby, Belle reeled off six homers in six swings and advanced to the final (where he was outslugged by Frank Thomas). He believes he found a groove that translated into 36 home runs in the second half of the season, including 18 in his last 29 games. Seven times in 1995 he cracked two homers in a game, and once he hit three. And, lest we forget, he accomplished all of this in a strike-stunted 144-game season. Simple mathematics suggests that Belle was on pace to hit 56 homers over a full schedule, but one can't help speculating about a hitter who finished up so strong, tying Babe Ruth's 1927 record of 17 homers in September. What might Belle have done with 18 more games?
For his part, Belle refused to speculate on the matter, but he did speak after last Saturday's heroics, which was worth a headline in itself. Belle, who often chooses not to acknowledge reporters regardless of his performance, agreed to a most unlikely press conference in which he amiably discussed the goals he still hopes to reach during the postseason, the first in which Cleveland is participating in 41 years. "It's been a Cinderella storybook season," Belle said. "But hitting a home run in the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series would be the perfect ending."