Halloween is a reference to last Oct. 31, when several teenage trick-or-treaters, after being informed by Belle's father that there was no candy for them, pelted Belle's suburban Cleveland home with eggs. Belle called the police and said, in a tape-recorded conversation, "You better get somebody over here, because if I find one of them, I'll kill them." Belle then ran the teenagers off his property in his Ford Explorer. Later he was found guilty of reckless operation of a motor vehicle on private property and fined $100.
Alcohol is a reference to Belle's sketchy drinking history. During the 1990 season he spent two months at a hospital called the Cleveland Clinic, where he received treatment for alcoholism and counseling in temper control. Since he left the program, Belle has said, he hasn't had a drink. But his temper has remained erratic.
When he entered the program Belle was known in his family as Joey, a shortened version of his middle name. He emerged from the Cleveland Clinic as Albert, a name he shares with his soft-spoken father, a retired high school coach. The new name was supposed to symbolize a fresh start. The ballplayer's strong-willed mother, Carrie, a retired math teacher and a devout Baptist who remains a primary influence in Albert's life, resisted the name change; she saw no reason for a second beginning for her first-born son. But when he left the hospital, he made a public statement under the name Albert Belle: "While in the clinic, I discovered that I have had problems with concentration, motivation, attitude and temper. I have found a new way of life through the clinic's program and a 12-step recovery plan."
Some people who know Belle believe his aftercare statement was disingenuous. Concentration and motivation have never been his weaknesses. "When they coined the term tunnel vision, they had Albert in mind," says Mike Hargrove, the Indians' manager. Some of Belle's former coaches—in Shreveport, La., where he was born and raised, and later in college—agree.
As for alcoholism, Belle's college coach and his mother, among others, never saw any evidence that he had a drinking problem. But during his first three seasons of professional baseball, most of which he spent in the minors, Belle struggled with his own expectations and became, according to a person with knowledge of Belle's treatment, a closet drinker, imbibing in the privacy of his room and sometimes showing up for work the next day hung over and moody. In one tantrum, his last before entering the clinic, he dislodged a porcelain sink from a clubhouse wall and smashed it to pieces with a bat.
The Indians were eager to get Belle's psychological house in order. They felt Belle could become a big-time big leaguer if he could get his head together. Indians officials confronted Belle and coaxed him into the clinic, where doctors and counselors said he exhibited alcoholic tendencies. In time Belle came to believe that himself. For a man whose pride is said to be colossal, the admission of a flaw was wrenching.
The Indians were relieved. Alcoholism gave a socially acceptable name to erratic behavior; it gave the Indians' management hope. Carrie Belle never believed it. "Joey goes along with it because if he doesn't, the Indians will dump him," she said after he left the clinic. (She declined to be interviewed for this story.) The Indians took Carrie's phone calls, heard her out. But they were convinced they had the problem licked. They still feel that way.
"He had a problem, and he came to terms with it," says John Hart, the Indians' general manager. "That's in the past. Albert Belle is the most popular player in Cleveland. He does what we pay him to do."
The general manager is a practical man, not prone to psychobabble. "We ask ourselves, What has this guy not done for the organization, except be accessible to the media?" Hart says. "He's done everything. We support our players; we are a family. Ninety-five to 98 percent of the time, Albert's a delight to be around. The times he's not, we deal with it, internally, like a family. We hope we have him for the rest of his career. He'll probably play until he's 40. And he's going to have one of the most prolific offensive careers in baseball history." Maybe so, but three weeks ago the Indians broke off contract negotiations with Belle after he reportedly rejected a five-year, $38 million offer. The deal would have made him the second-highest-paid player in the game, behind Ken Griffey Jr. Unless Cleveland re-signs Belle, he will be a free agent at the end of the season.
Belle is the rare modern player who is actually a student of baseball history. He knows numbers, knows what Hank Greenberg and Jimmie Foxx and Henry Aaron had accomplished by the time they were 29. "He knows his baseball history because he wants to be part of baseball history," says Dan O'Dowd, the Indians' assistant general manager. "When he was a minor leaguer, like most minor leaguers, he was selfish. Now he knows that great players are usually associated with great teams."