Belle's Bad Bets
The revelation that Albert Belle indulges heavily and frequently in sports betting had barely come to light last week when the pooh-poohing began. Even before pledging that baseball would investigate Belle's gambling, acting commissioner Bud Selig reminded the press that betting pools and friendly wagers are a part of every big league clubhouse. Jerry Reinsdorf, chairman of the Chicago White Sox, the team that signed Belle to a five-year, $55 million free-agent contract in November, said he was "not worried" because "there is no indication Albert bet on baseball." Belle himself downplayed the gambling issue, telling USA Today that he did not bet on baseball and that he and his teammates merely bet casually on other sports. Said Belle, "It's no different than anyone else's office pool."
He's wrong. In a deposition given in Cleveland on Feb. 11 as part of a civil lawsuit filed against him for allegedly driving his truck after a group of boys who had egged his house on Halloween of 1995, Belle admitted that he lost about $40,000 betting on pro football and college basketball games, and in golf wagers with friends. While Belle can clearly afford the loss, its magnitude brings into question who was handling his action. That's why this can't be considered "office pool" money, even for someone who makes $11 million a year. And even if evidence proves that Belle did not bet on his own sport, baseball must take his gambling seriously. "The problem with gambling of any kind is that it creates debt," says John Dowd, the Washington, D.C.-based attorney whose investigation of Pete Rose's gambling led to Rose's lifetime expulsion from baseball in 1989. "And when people cannot pay, that's when they become vulnerable to the bookmakers. That is when the integrity of the game is on the line."
Even if Belle has his losses under control, baseball should be worried about other aspects of his gambling: the possibility that he did bet on baseball; violated tax or gambling laws; or, despite his denials, did business with a bookie or bookies, thereby violating the sport's unwritten rule against improper associations.
There are other questions for baseball's investigators to explore. Belle says he "may have" paid off his $40,000 in losses with eight money orders, each in the amount of $5,000. Had Belle signed a personal check to a bookie, he would be admitting to gambling, a misdemeanor in Ohio. If he paid with a single $40,000 money order, the transaction would have come to the attention of the IRS. (Purchase of a money order of $10,000 or more is automatically reported.) Belle instead employed a method that is frequently used by gamblers to pay off debts while hiding the losses from authorities. Money orders are traceable, and baseball should be on the trail of Belle's.
Even before his deposition, Belle's high-stakes habits were known to the commissioner's office. John Hart, general manager of the Cleveland Indians, for whom Belle played the last eight seasons, said last week that Kevin Hallinan, baseball's security chief, had given him a "heads up" in March 1996 that baseball was looking into Belle's involvement in gambling. Hart said Hallinan had not gotten back to him since.
There was, at week's end, no evidence that Belle had bet on his own sport. "Albert is clearly aware of the rules because he's been briefed on several occasions," says Belle's attorney, Jose Feliciano of Cleveland. "He's lived well within the rules." Maybe so, but baseball owes its public a full investigation. "It [heavy betting] puts a cloud on him," says Dowd. "And it puts a cloud on the game."
Fans of English soccer were crushed when their team lost 1-0 to Italy in a Feb. 12 World Cup qualifying match in London—England's first defeat in a home qualifier in 40 years—but they weren't the only ones left high and dry. Alessandro Bernardi, a Venetian-born dishwasher-turned-cabaret singer now living in London, had been chosen by the Italian embassy to sing Italy's national anthem before the game in Wembley Stadium. But after a British paper ran photos of Bernardi, in the high point of his nightclub act, singing Nessun Donna while standing naked on a table, Italian officials replaced him with a professional opera singer.
"It is a terrible disappointment," said Bernardi, who had accepted the invitation to sing, he said, purely for the honor. "I intended to do my best. I would have been fully dressed for the occasion."