Mancini, one of Belle's regular golf and chess partners, says the player has developed a fundamental mistrust of people—clamoring autograph seekers and intrusive representatives of the press in particular—because they always want something from him, and he realizes that no matter how much he gives, it won't be enough. "I spend four months a year in Third World countries," Mancini says. "There are a lot of beggars. The first time they ask you for money, you might give them something, but by the fifth time you reach a breaking point. So finally you say, 'No!' Then they don't come back. That's Albert. If he doesn't want to give an interview or an autograph, he says, 'No!' He says it in a way that you know he means it."
Their friendship, Mancini says, is rooted in shared feelings about the role of Jesus in their lives. (Most days Belle's only jewelry is an ornate gold crucifix.) Mancini says the real Albert Belle may be found on days off, when he's at his Cleveland church, Liberty Hill Baptist, and when he talks to teenagers at schools about the perils of drinking. Belle's true self, Mancini says, is also revealed in his extreme closeness to his parents and brother, and in his relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Julie Shimko, formerly an administrator at the Cleveland Clinic and now a graduate student. "He knows that she doesn't want anything material from him," Mancini says. "And she sees the good in the man: that he's loyal, caring and sensitive."
Sensitive is not the first word most people associate with Belle. It is the first one that comes to Mancini. "One time we're in the batting cage, preparing for a game, and he's incredibly focused and intense before a game," Mancini says. "He sees something in my eyes, from a distance of 60 feet, and says, 'You're really down, aren't you?' And I say, 'Yeah.' And he says, 'Your dad?' And I say, 'Yeah, he's really sick, because of his drinking.' And he says, 'Do you want me to talk to him? I know I can help him.' I've been around professional athletes. Most professional athletes are just not like that."
Belle is not only sensitive. He's also funny. "He's very funny," says Dave Nelson, the Indians first base coach and a friend of Belle's. "He's got routines." One is a rap song called Potbelly Nellie that Belle composed and performs on bus rides. Another of his routines is a demonstration of how Nelson's waistline has expanded during his years with the Indians. Belle sprints to the coach's box to depict Nelson in 1992 and then does a heavy-legged trot to depict the coach now. Belle also does, according to Nelson, a killer imitation of the coach's Midwestern diction. Still, despite their friendship and their constant, playful needling of one another, Nelson is not exempt from Belle's tantrums.
"Albert's snapped at me," Nelson says. "He's gone off at other coaches. You never know which Albert's going to show up. Sometimes he's laughing with everybody, sometimes he wants to be off by himself, doing the crossword puzzle. It's hard to understand what makes him tick. He's extremely proud. He doesn't say he's sorry easily. People want him to apologize with tears. He's not going to do that. But there are more positive aspects to him than negative ones. I love him."
Over the years Nelson has won Belle's trust. So have Lofton, Mancini and Shimko. But few others have. Lofton and Nelson agree with Mancini that mistrust is a fundamental part of Belle's personality.
It wasn't always. Growing up in a middle-class section of Shreve-port, Belle gave no signs of becoming the public misanthrope he is today. "I remember after one of Joey's high school playoff games, he and Terry came running after my truck, real exuberant and yelling, 'Hey, when's this going to get in the paper?' " recalls Teddy Allen, then a young sportswriter for The Times of Shreveport. "Joey was a good guy."
Which is not to say he was ordinary. "I brought him up to excel in everything," Carrie Belle once said. At Huntington High he ranked sixth in a graduating class of 266. He was an Eagle Scout and an all-state baseball player, and every Sunday he was at Galilee Baptist Church. (Today, a modest baseball stadium behind the church is being restored and will be named for both Belle and Riley Stewart, a Negro leagues player from Shreveport.) People in Shreveport who know Belle say he was sheltered and pushed by his mother.
"He wants to be perfect," Carrie once said. And when he wasn't, he would throw bats, helmets, tantrums. Old baseball hands will tell you that the game is about handling failure as much as anything, and in this regard Belle showed little promise. Even though his physical gifts were impressive, professional baseball ignored him when he came out of high school, and few big-time college programs recruited him. An exception was Louisiana State, in Baton Rouge, about 4½ hours down the road from Shreveport. LSU coach Skip Bertman signed not only Joey but also Terry.
Joey spent three years at LSU, and in those years Bertman, who is the U.S. Olympic baseball coach, sensed in him extreme anger and low self-esteem. He thought Joey needed counseling. He knew Carrie would have to approve it. She rebuffed him, Bertman says, though Carrie denies ever discussing the matter with him. According to Bertman, Carrie said, "People will talk."