There's a difference between being fiery and being just plain out of line, and Indians leftfielder Albert Belle proved again last week that he can't make that distinction. Despite orders from both acting commissioner Bud Selig and American League president Gene Budig that he seek counseling to curb his anger and aggression, Belle is getting worse. On May 28 he hit homer number 21 in Texas, and asked team officials if they could retrieve the ball for him. The fan who caught it was later brought to the Cleveland clubhouse to meet Belle, and the fan said he would gladly exchange it for an autographed ball. Belle refused, then cursed the man, leaving embarrassed public relations officials to apologize to yet another disillusioned baseball fan. Then, last Friday night, Belle was in the middle of an ugly bench-clearing brawl in Milwaukee that had its roots in a base-running play an inning earlier, when Belle threw a vicious forearm to the face of Brewers second baseman Fernando Vina. Technically it was a legal play, but the forearm was a disgraceful cheap shot that sent the 5'9" Vina flying. Vina thought Belle had broken his nose and later said, "Belle is a time bomb ready to explode. He's out of control."
And there's no one to stop him. He doesn't listen to anyone in the organization—including Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove, who has tried and failed to get through to him. Those who have dealt with him say he listens to one person only, his mother. Recently, Indians pitcher Dennis Martinez was on the mound ready to start an inning, but Belle wasn't in leftfield. He was still in the dugout and trotted out to his position belatedly. The Indians tolerate that behavior because Belle is one of the best hitters in baseball, a Triple Crown candidate as well as a threat to break Roger Maris's record of 61 homers.
The incident in Milwaukee, however, will hurt the Indians. After Belle flattened Vina in the eighth, Brewers pitcher Terry Burrows hit Belle with a pitch in the ninth. So before the bottom of the ninth Belle apparently told relief pitcher Julian Tavarez to throw at a Brewer. Tavarez threw behind the head of Milwaukee catcher Mike Matheny, who charged the mound, starting the brawl. In the melee that ensued, Tavarez slammed umpire Joe Brinkman to the ground. On Monday, Budig announced five-game suspensions for Belle, Tavarez and Matheny, citing Belle for actions that "not only threatened injury to an individual but also led to the later disruption of the game."
Baseball is to be congratulated for its prompt decision in this case, letting Belle know that he must take responsibility for his actions. Meanwhile, chalk up two more black marks on Belle's record, two more reasons to believe that while he may be a great player, he's also simply a bad guy.
A Blessed Padre
At week's end the Padres had opened a 5½-game lead on the Dodgers in the National League West, and one of the big reasons was the steady relief work of closer Trevor Hoffman. The hard-throwing righthander had a 3-2 record with 11 saves, a 1.44 ERA and 40 strikeouts in only 25 innings. But his life's story is even more remarkable than his pitching.
When Hoffman was six weeks old, he had to have one of his kidneys removed because an arterial blockage had formed there. As a kid growing up near Anaheim, he wasn't allowed to play football or wrestle, but he played most other sports. He especially loved baseball because his brother Glenn, who was nine years older, became the shortstop for the Red Sox when Trevor was 12. "I was the perfect age," Trevor says. "I'd hang around the clubhouse, wear his hat, his shoes, even though they were 10 sizes too big."
When he wasn't following Glenn, or his other brother, Greg, a high school basketball coach, he was going with his father, Ed, to Angels games. For 15 years Ed Hoffman was the famous singing usher at Angels games. Before that, he sang with the Royal Guards, a troupe that performed all over the world. "We get our professionalism from him," Trevor says. "But none of us kids can carry a tune. It's pretty sad, because my father [who died a year and a half ago] was great." Trevor's mother, Mikki, is a former ballerina who was born in England. "She says we get our athleticism from her," says Trevor.
Hoffman planned on playing shortstop in the major leagues after leading the University of Arizona team in hitting in 1988 with a .371 batting average, 35 points better than teammate J.T. Snow, who's now the Angels first baseman. The Reds drafted Hoffman in the 11th round the next year, but after 103 games in 1990 for Class A Charleston, Hoffman says, "I had made 35 errors and my average was just over the Mendoza Line. I couldn't hit a slider. I knew I wasn't going to knock Barry Larkin out of a job with the Reds."
So it was suggested to Hoffman by Charleston manager Jim Lett that he might try pitching. He did—with amazingly good results. In '91, his first season on the mound, he threw a total of 47⅔ innings at Cedar Rapids and at Double A Chattanooga, and he had a 1.89 ERA and 75 strikeouts. He had such a live arm that the Marlins selected him in the 1992 expansion draft. A year later he was involved in the five-player trade that sent third baseman Gary Sheffield from San Diego to Florida.