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How badly, and how often, the baseball gods have screwed us really hit home last week. Mark McGwire hit his 500th homer against San Diego, a team that was so close to being ours 25 years ago that Washington Padres trading cards were actually printed up for the 1974 season. (eBay is rarely without a few on sale.)Then Tony Gwynn nailed his 3,000th hit on the road against the Expos, whose relocation to D.C. has been reported as a foregone conclusion pretty much every other week for two years. But, despite attendance figures that would embarrass even the Bowie Baysox—only 12,000 tickets were sold on the night Gwynn attained immortality—Montreal keeps its grip on the squad. Finally, Wade Boggs joined the 3,000-hit club wearing the uniform of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, a second-year franchise that the nation’s capital would have been awarded had common sense and justice played larger roles in the owners’ expansion decisions.
While so much baseball history was being made elsewhere, local fans could head up I-95 to see the Orioles. And instead of cheering on McGwire, Gwynn, or Boggs as they chased records and punched their tickets to Cooperstown, we could boo Albert Belle, who chases kids in his truck and punches small second basemen. Lucky us.
OK, Belle is an easy target, and he hasn’t run over any children or socked anybody since putting on an O’s uniform. But just because Belle has temporarily muted his critics doesn’t mean his penance is paid. Quite simply, the more you look at Belle, the more loathsome he looks. And with Cal Ripken on the disabled list, Belle is the O’s’ only everyday player who brings people to the park—even if they come just to heckle him—so now is as good a time as any for a rehash of his horrific resume.
As a jerk, Belle is breathtaking in his consistency: Records indicate that he hasn’t avoided trouble at least since high school. He was thrown off the Louisiana State University baseball team after rushing the stands to attack a fan. Reports from his days in the Cape Cod League show that Belle once charged the mound not after a beanball but after popping out to the pitcher with the runners in scoring position, and on another occasion in the lower minors he is alleged to have smashed an umpire’s gear with his bat because he didn’t like a strike call.
Belle’s first major-league run-in came in 1990, when he destroyed a stadium bathroom during a tirade. He agreed to seek alcohol counseling after that incident and changed his first name from Joey to Albert. No personality transplant was available, however. The very next season, Belle started an amazing stretch in which he was fined or suspended at least once every year from 1991 to 1997, with all but one of the banishments coming as a result of violent or profane acts. (The exception is Belle’s infamous 1995 seven-game suspension, handed down when he was caught cheating with a corked bat.)
Belle’s more notable bullying episodes had him menacing anorexic Hannah Storm in the dugout during the 1995 World Series and breaking the nose of diminutive Brewers infielder Fernando Vina with a forearm shiver in 1996. In that same year, Belle injured a Sports Illustrated photographer during pregame warmups by intentionally drilling him with a baseball while he shot the Indians’ batting practice. After that beaning, the Washington Post editorial board took the dramatic step of calling on baseball owners to institute a “Three strikes and you’re out” plan and ban Belle for life as a serial offender.
He’s a bad actor off the field, too. He has a domestic-abuse-related assault conviction from 1992, and a reckless driving count stuck in 1995 after he jumped in his truck and ran over a trick-or-treater he’d accused of egging his home. An assault complaint from a former girlfriend led to another arrest last year, but charges relating to that bust were subsequently dropped after an out-of-court settlement was reached. In another case, Belle was granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony about his role in an Ohio gambling ring that helped put two bookies in prison. Belle admitted to having lost $40,000 to the pair, which is just a couple days’ interest on the windfall he got courtesy of Peter Angelos.
Everything was supposed to change once Belle got exposed to the Oriole Way. But only the blindest Orioles fans haven’t already dismissed all the positives Angelos and general manager Frank Wren threw Belle’s way last winter when they spent $65 million and brought him to Baltimore. His agent, Arn Tellem, told them that his client had just been misunderstood all these years. Tellem, it should be noted, also represents Latrell Sprewell and spewed the same crap while P.J. Carlesimo’s neck wounds healed.
Belle hasn’t hit with the same power or gotten on base as frequently as he used to, but in terms of personality, his pre-Oriole past serves as prologue. His much-publicized glasnost with the media lasted only a week into his first spring training with the O’s, ending when a wire service reporter had the audacity to write up the violent tirade he saw from Belle in a locker room. “I’m done with you guys,” Belle told beat reporters. He wasn’t done being a jerk, however. He’s since thrown a bottle through a locker room television set, been benched after getting in a televised argument with manager Ray Miller over whether he should run out ground balls, and been reprimanded after getting caught making obscene gestures at the home fans.
But instead of sucking in silence as promised, Belle started up his own Web site and began contributing opinion columns to the Baltimore Press. The site is nothing if not bizarre. Among the features are a financial advice Q&A and a cartoon series called Saved By Albert Belle, in which the sullen right fielder is cast as a superhero who rubs elbows with celebrities while looking for wrongs to right. In one episode, the Belle character, who sounds nothing like the player, parties with Roberto Benigni in Hollywood. In another, he hangs with the bikini-clad trio of Britney Spears, Ashley Judd, and Tiffany Amber Thiessen. In a third, he swoops down to catch the Orioles mascot, who has been thrown over an upper deck railing by a group of drunk fans at Camden Yards.
Belle’s contributions to the Baltimore Press, though ostensibly serious, are equally peculiar. While attempting to outline a scheme he’s devised to stem the decline in Baltimore’s population, Belle writes: “We all remember the Wendy’s ad slogan a few years back: ‘Where’s the Beef?’ The elderly ladies made this short phrase a battle cry for ‘meatier’ hamburgers. I would like to make ‘Where Are the People’ the battle cry for Baltimore. Let’s make available quality jobs and housing to all. For Baltimore to achieve peaceful harmony, all residents should have an opportunity for prosperity. Our city has as much to offer as any other city and what we may lack, I guarantee you, we can make up in genuine friendliness and sincerity.”
Sounds like a plan, Albert. But keep all your genuine friendliness and sincerity in your town. It won’t cure what we lack down here. We need us a baseball team.—Dave McKenna