Joey knew trauma at LSU. During his junior year Bertman pulled him out of a game after he had struck out and flung his bat. While Belle was standing on the top step of the dugout, pulling off his batting gloves, a spectator yelled, "Nigger!" Belle seethed, but he said and did nothing. Bertman tried diligently, he says, to learn the identity of the offending spectator, but he was unsuccessful. Later, according to the coach, Belle came to believe that not enough was done on his behalf, and the incident contributed to the mistrust that is so characteristic of him. Carrie, Bertman adds, had a fundamental mistrust of whites. Although Carrie denies it, Bertman says, "The attitude she conveyed to Joey was, Don't let the white man sell you short. Given the history between blacks and whites in this state, it's understandable."
But what most upset Belle, according to Bertman, was that the coach benched him during the 1987 College World Series for repeatedly failing to run out balls and for throwing bats and helmets. The pro scouts knew that Belle's stroke was a thing of beauty, that his numbers were spectacular, that his commitment to improvement was intense, that he was competitive in the extreme, that he had big leaguer all but tattooed under the brim of his cap. He looked like he would go high in the first round of the draft. What the scouts couldn't understand was why Bertman would drop his best player for the team's most important games.
The Atlanta Braves' scouts decided that regardless of Belle's talents, they would not draft him in any round. They concluded that Belle had no respect for anybody or anything. Other teams became nervous, too. Belle was not drafted until the second round, which might have cost him as much as $40,000 in signing bonus money. Belle, however, believed it cost him more. He was angry then, and he's angry still. After learning that a writer had talked to Bertman about him, Belle told the writer, "What the f—- are you doing that for? F—- LSU."
Others say Belle was changed by his LSU experience. Allen covered Belle during those years for the Times-Picayune of New Orleans. Early in Belle's rookie season in the minors, the paper sent Allen out to catch up with Belle. The player didn't want to talk. Allen had seldom known Belle to be silent. "But what about the folks in New Orleans?" Allen asked.
"F—- the people in New Orleans," Belle said.
"Joey Belle, as I knew him, was gone," Allen says. In his place was an enigma.
Bertman believes that for all of Belle's drive and intensity, there's a basic aspect of his personality that is not suited to the pressure of major league baseball, the pressure of expectations, the pressure to perform, the pressure to satisfy his mother. He rebels by being rude and disrespectful, even antisocial. The Belle who uses corked bats, Bertman believes, is the one overwhelmed by his need to succeed. Remove Albert from the world of baseball, and he's Joey again, pleasant and witty and smart. But with each home run, with every new success, Belle's profession becomes a more central part of his identity.
"In his junior year, when the talk of the baseball draft started, he realized for the first time that he was in a position to make a lot of money as a ballplayer, and you could see the pressure mounting in him," Bertman said. He had been talking about Joey Belle for an hour now. The breakfast crowd in a hotel dining room had cleared out.
"I always tried to do the right thing by him," Bertman continued. "I know he hates me. If he needs that hate to succeed, it's fine by me. I always liked him. He was a good kid. He just had a hard time with the pressure."
The old baseball man made a fist and grimaced. "The pressure, the pressure, the pressure."