02/28/12 7:21 PM EST
Belle shows his softer side at Indians camp
By Jordan Bastian / MLB.com
It appears that time can soften even the most menacing of men.
Belle's famous scowl was replaced by a wide smile -- his beard now dotted with flecks of gray -- as he swapped baseball stories with former Cleveland counterparts Kenny Lofton and Carlos Baerga. They worked Belle hard in recent days, trying to convince him to make the journey to join old friends at the Tribe's spring home.
"I came to see the guys," Belle said softly.
With Lofton and Baerga in camp this spring as guest instructors for the Indians, rumors of Belle's arrival had been boiling for days. Baerga quipped that he might have to have Belle shipped to the complex in a cage. The erstwhile slugger had essentially gone into hiding since retiring due to chronic hip issues more than a decade ago.
News that the persistent prodding on the part of Baerga and Lofton had worked, and that Belle was actually on his way to Goodyear from his home in nearby Scottsdale, Ariz., spread quickly in Tuesday's early hours.
"Somebody nail everything to the ground," one Indians staffer joked.
The Belle who arrived, however, was hardly the imposing figure whom people remembered. The man who showed up is a quiet father, a lover of golf and a source of countless tales and tremendous baseball insight. Belle joked around with the reporters he once blew off, and he told of how he wished his time in Cleveland had lasted longer.
These days, the 45-year-old Belle is married with a quartet of daughters ranging from 2 to 11 years old. He attends one D-backs game per year in Phoenix, and his only traveling consistst of trips to various golf courses.
"I'm a stay-at-home dad," Belle said with a smile. "I'm raising little kids. I'm Mr. Mom."
Life was simpler when his responsibilities centered on crushing fastballs.
"Facing [David] Cone and [Roger] Clemens was easy compared to being a dad," Belle said to an eruption of laughs. "It seems like all the kids get tired and cranky at the same time."
Like father, like daughters.
This day, though, was about who Belle is now -- not who he was in the past. If Tuesday was any indication, he has calmed considerably, and he noted that he has had thoughts about what it might be like to get back into the game in some capacity. He did not put on a uniform on this day, but he still took time to introduce himself to some players.
Before leaving for the day, Belle stood in an equipment room adjacent to the Indians' clubhouse. Left fielder Michael Brantley, outfielder Shelley Duncan and left-hander Tony Sipp stood around him as he discussed hitting. Belle spoke of how he used to set up pitchers with his approach through a series of plate appearances.
The players listened attentively.
And why wouldn't they?
Belle's abbreviated career included a string of eight consecutive seasons with at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs. At the time, only Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx and Lou Gehrig had accomplished that feat. In the years since, Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez have also joined that exclusive group.
On his first day in the Major Leagues, Belle ripped an RBI single off Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan in an Indians win. In his final at-bat on the big league stage, Belle launched his 381st home run.
In 1995, when Belle's prickly relationship with the media may have played a role in his runner-up finish in the American League Most Valuable Player Award balloting, he became the first player to club at least 50 home runs and 50 doubles in a single season. No player has matched that accomplishment.
Asked if he felt he might ever gain consideration for the Hall of Fame, Belle shrugged.
"I don't know," Belle said. "Maybe when another player gets 100 extra-base hits, they'll start talking about me again."
One thing is certain: People in Cleveland will never forget that '95 season.
With a stacked lineup -- the team featured the likes of Belle, Baerga, Lofton, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Eddie Murray, Sandy Alomar Jr., Omar Vizquel and Dave Winfield -- Cleveland cruised to 100 wins in a strike-shortened season. It was a relentless order, but one that could not topple the Braves for the World Series crown.
On Tuesday morning, Belle stood between Baerga and Lofton, a few steps away from the Indians' batting cages. Mike Hargrove -- the manager of that 1995 team and now an advisor to the ballclub -- soon joined them. So did Alomar, who is now the bench coach on Indians manager Manny Acta's staff.
It brought back a lot of great memories for Belle.
"We took our lumps when we were young," he said. "But then we turned it around in a new stadium, and we started dishing out the lumps."
As they swapped tales, former Indians pitcher Jason Bere -- in camp as a special assistant to the coaching staff -- walked by, stopped, held up his fungo bat and mimicked each of the stances used by Belle, Baerga and Lofton. The gathered crowd chuckled, and Lofton asked Bere if he wanted to get back on a mound to face them again.
"Didn't you guys wear me out enough already?" Bere said. "I never saw the '27 Yankees. But the '95 Indians? Whoa."
Following that magical season, Belle left via free agency, signing a five-year contract worth $55 million to play for the rival White Sox. Surrounded by his former Cleveland teammates on Tuesday, Belle said he had no regrets about his playing career, but he did admit he wished he could have been with the Tribe for a few more years.
"I wish we could've stayed together," Belle said. "It just didn't work out."
As for restoring his relationship with the team, Belle believes those steps have been taken.
"The fences were already mended," Belle said. "It was a long time ago, and the thing about free agency is that it's going to create bad feelings. I would have loved to have played with these guys for another five or 10 years together."
The past cannot be changed.
What Belle has now is his future to consider, and the Indians are open to the idea of having him around on a more consistent basis.
"They all got together and decided that they could bring in Albert around here," Acta said. "Every one of them raves about his preparation as a hitter. It'd be nice if things continue to evolve, and he's seen around here a little more often and can pass some of that on to our guys."
Before Tuesday's workout, Indians infielder Jason Donald spotted Belle as he headed outside the complex. After introducing himself to Belle, Donald did his best impersonation of the slugger's unique stance.
Belle got a kick out of it.
"He thought it was a good one," said Donald, who used to try to swing like Belle during Wiffle ball games as a kid. "He liked it. He thought it was pretty funny."
After his reunion with his former teammates, Belle headed to the practice fields and took in Cleveland's workout.
Baerga savored the experience of having his old friend in tow.
"I really miss Albert a lot and I wanted to see him," Baerga said. "The way we used to play together, the way we cared about the game, we were so cocky. We knew we were going to beat anybody at that time. To be together today is something special."
Whether Belle will be back is a question for another day.
The idea of becoming more involved in the game is at least stirring in his mind.
"I've thought about it," he said. "Maybe one day I will. I like staying at home raising my kids. Maybe when they get a little bit older, things will be different."
Belle can always practice coaching with them, too.
"My wife bought them a little tee-ball set," Belle said. "I'm trying to get them to play golf and tennis. They'd rather hit the tee balls, and they're pretty good."