You're walking up a wide set of steps, sun-drenched concrete under your feet. The clubhouse door at the Cleveland Indians' spring training complex in Winter Haven, Fla., pops open, and through it tumbles the awesome personage of Albert Jojuan Belle, the Indians' 29-year-old slugger. You see his face. It is cherubic, intelligent, at odds with his reputation (which is for surliness) and with the rest of his body (which is built for war). He's on his way to the weight room, and he's falling into the effortless half-trot of the elite athlete. His arms bend and his shoulders rise, and he's about to pass you, a stranger, when he says three words that let you know he knows there's life beyond his own.
He says, "How you doing?"
Albert Belle is capable of small kindnesses, and in small kindnesses there are whole worlds.
Mostly we hear about his rudeness, his anger, his temper. He once refused to shake the outstretched hand of Dr. Bobby Brown, the former American League president. He once chased trick-or-treaters off his property with his car, threatening to kill them if he caught them. He once fired a baseball into the chest of a spectator.
If you had the chance to ask Belle about these incidents, he would tell you they didn't begin with him. Brown's repeated suspensions of Belle were, to the player, unjustified, so why should he shake the man's hand? The trick-or-treaters egged his home and embarrassed him in front of his visiting parents. The spectator goaded Belle, a recovering alcoholic, about drinking, and the leftfielder snapped.
But Belle won't talk about the events of his life. He won't let you find out who he is. Politely you ask him for an interview. Earlier on this March day he said, "How you doing?" recognizing you as a fellow human being. Now he knows why you exist. He says, "SPORTS ILLUSTRATED can kiss my black ass."
Belle's friends, relatives and teammates are left to explain the man, which is not easy. They can illustrate his perfectionism (he has followed a homer with a trip to the batting cage, upset that he didn't catch all of the home run ball), but they don't know where it springs from. They can tell you about his intense drive (he wants to be the highest-paid player in baseball), but they don't know its roots. They say he is often playful and loose (when you hear singing in the Indians' clubhouse, it's often Belle), but they also say his capacity for anger is ever present. They're wary of delving into the source of that anger, but they know the feeling is real—and, to Belle, useful.
Last October, when the Indians played the Atlanta Braves in the World Series, Cleveland lost the first two games. Belle had just one hit, a soft single, in those games, but it was his bland response to his ineffectiveness that left his teammates worried. They wanted to see his anger erupt again, and his bat along with it. In the aftermath of the second loss, Omar Vizquel, the Indians shortstop, reminisced about Belle's heaving watercoolers and smashing telephones. Kenny Lofton, the Indians centerfielder, said, "Albert has not been as frustrated as I want him to be. I want to see him break a bat." But Belle—or Snapper, as he was known early in his career—spared the wood. He went for a television reporter instead.
More than two hours before the third game of the Series, Hannah Storm of NBC, along with other reporters, felt the leftfielder's wrath in the Indians' dugout. According to witnesses, Belle walked in and started shouting, "All you media a———, get the f—- out of here now." Most of the reporters left, even though their presence was sanctioned by Major League Baseball. Storm, preparing to conduct an interview, stayed.
"I'm talking to you, you a———!" Belle screamed at Storm. "Get the f—- out!" Storm did not budge. Belle's tirade lasted five minutes. Only when he was finished did Storm begin to shake.