Prompted by the Belle signing, the owners called a meeting. scheduled for Tuesday in Chicago, at which they were expected to discuss the labor deal again and possibly take another vote on ratifying the agreement. As SI went to press on Monday, the consensus was that the pending labor deal had a better chance of being approved this time. At the owners' last gathering, on Nov. 6, they shot down the deal by an 18-12 vote. Twenty-three votes are needed for passage.
Reinsdorf denies convincing any of his counterparts to vote against the deal, but his backroom powers of persuasion are renowned. Some people are still amazed at how little Reinsdorf's lips move when Selig speaks. "I barely spoke," Reinsdorf said of the owners' meeting three weeks ago. "I didn't call a single person to solicit a vote. I've heard this theory that people are going to cave in to the union because they resent me, but no one has said anything to my face."
Reinsdorf's fellow owners offered little or no public reaction to the Belle signing. Even Selig, who was privately nursing the knife wound in his back, maintained a diplomatic front. "Each club has to do what it thinks it has to do to be competitive," he said.
While the owners might be feeling burned by the signing, the White Sox fans are thrilled to add another tabloid time bomb to their growing collection. The pipeline from the lunatic fringe to the I (Hip has now carried baseball's most volatile personality to a scene that already includes Dennis Rodman and Bryan Cox. Who's next, Diego Maradona?
After the White Sox went 85-77 last season and finished 14½ games behind the Indians in the American League Central, Reinsdorf made up his mind to give his customers the best team money could buy. But before embarking on his shopping spree, he solicited the advice of Thomas, his resident superstar. "Frank wanted Belle—period," said Reinsdorf. "I said to him, 'How about Barry Bonds? I hear he's available.' And Frank said, 'Oh, no. Albert's better. He's the guy I want.' "
Reinsdorf said he met with Belle for three hours before making the record-breaking offer, and he came away convinced that Belle will behave in his new surroundings. If Reinsdorf believes that, he is the only one. Compared with Cleveland, Chicago has more people, more photographers, more writers, even more trick-or-treaters—all things that push Belle past his breaking point. And how will Belle's White Sox teammates react when he smashes the clubhouse thermostat with a bat because the room is too warm, as he did in Jacobs Field last season?
"Albert wants a fresh start," said Reinsdorf. "We talked about it. He is obsessive with game preparation, but he understands that he can't continue to do the things he's done in the past."
Oh, he can't? Reinsdorf's outrageous offer made just the opposite clear to Belle. He can continue to treat the fans and media as if they are pests intruding on his solitary pursuit, and in the long run there will be no consequences. Forget Mike. The message from Reinsdorf is clear: Be like Albert. Anger and arrogance pay well. "Sometimes it got a little scary when things started flying around," Cleveland catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. said of Belle's tantrums. "But what could you say? The guy is a great hitter."
To his credit Reinsdorf understands that Belle is not just another harmless, cross-dressing self-promoter he added to his payroll. While fans were quick to draw a comparison between Belle and Rodman, another well-paid employee of Reinsdorf's. there is one big difference: Rodman is all act. Belle is a genuine head case, a human explosive device that can detonate at any moment. "People want to compare the two, but there's no comparison," said Reinsdorf. "All of Rodman's antics are deliberate. Albert's problems involve emotional responses to things that happen around him. He regrets most of them, and we're going to work with him to see that they don't happen again."
Belle is the only player in baseball who scares both teams every time he shows up at the ballpark. For the next five years, no one will be more nervous than the man who guaranteed him $55 million. But in the end, if it is all about getting people's attention, we have to give Reinsdorf his due. This we've got to see.