At 45 years old and 12 seasons removed from being a major leaguer after a hip injury cut his career short, Albert Belle has grayed and gained some weight. A self-described stay-at-home dad, Belle says he would "rather pick up a golf club" than a baseball bat anymore.
But man, when he was healthy and in his prime, Belle was a force at the plate. He, along with Carlos Baerga, Kenny Lofton and Jim Thome, were the backbone of some Cleveland Indians teams — particularly the 1995 squad — that were as dominant as any (without winning the World Series, anyway). Belle, from 1994-1998, was as feared as any hitter in baseball (even if he corked his bat).
That's why it was a big deal when Belle visited Indians camp Tuesday for the first time since leaving as a free agent after the '96 season. Current Indians infielder Jason Donald couldn't believe it, as reporter Paul Hoynes wrote in the Cleveland Plain Dealer:
After the reporters left, Jason Donald met Belle and did a perfect imitation of his batting stance and swing. Belle approved.
"When I was nine years old, playing Whiffle ball in the backyard, I was always Albert Belle," said Donald. "I couldn't wait to meet him."
And hanging with Baerga and Lofton? It was like old times for Belle.
"I came to see the guys," the 45-year-old Belle said. "It's good to see them again."
Of course, Belle also was to be feared after the games were over. If you were a reporter, if you were a trick-or-treater or a woman in his life — good luck.
It's strange to see him now, not just because he has kept to himself, or because of the typical but striking physical changes. But also because of what might have been. The hip injury, not unlike the one that befell Bo Jackson, ended his career at age 33. Who knows if Belle could have cobbled together a Hall of Fame career — or if he could have gotten enough people to vote for him.
And then there's the death of Terry Belle, Albert's twin brother, who was killed in an auto wreck in September. Belle must miss his brother terribly. People usually had kind things to say about Terry when Albert played in Chicago with the White Sox. Terry, who went to a lot of games at U.S. Cellular Field, seemed like a nice guy. Few seldom had anything nice to say about Albert's personality.
But the guy could hit.