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JIM MURRAY

WORLD SERIES: Atlanta Braves vs. Cleveland Indians : It's Dudville for Albert

October 23, 1995|JIM MURRAY

ATLANTA — Seek not to ask for whom the Belle tolls. It tolls for thee.

Now, the poet John Donne did not have Albert in mind when he penned those deathless lines of poetry, he meant the mortality and the frailty of mankind.

But this Belle tolled Sunday evening, and this was a Belle not hanging from a rope in a French cathedral, this Belle was a menacing presence in a batter's box wearing the No. 8 and a wide scowl.

Ordinarily this Belle would toll for thee, all right, if you threw pitches for a living.

But not on this Sunday night.

For a pitcher, ordinarily, this is Hell's Belle--220 pounds of malevolence and aggression. You don't know whether to pitch to him or fight him with a cape and sword.

His specialty is winning games with shots into the seats in the late innings. He cracked a grand slam against the Angels and Lee Smith this summer in the ninth inning, turning a 5-3 defeat into a 7-5 victory. He beat Toronto two nights in a row with extra-inning home runs. He does that all the time.

Except Sunday night.

You have all heard of "Casey at the Bat?" No joy in Mudville and all of that?

Well, never mind Mudville. How about Cleveland?

Come with me to Game 2 of the 1995 World Series. It's a taut struggle with both sides more or less failing to hold serve and the score is 4-2 Atlanta in the top of the seventh. There are two outs, none on, when Kenny Lofton singles to center. Naturally, he steals second.

Omar Vizquel lofts a catchable fly ball to left field. Only the left fielder doesn't catch it. He ends up chasing it. Two-base error. Score is now 4-3.

Rattled, Atlanta pitcher Greg McMichael throws a wild pitch on ball four to Carlos Baerga. Vizquel advances to third.

Now here comes Mighty Casey--our Belle.

The game--maybe the Series--is on the line.

You have to understand Cleveland is putting its best foot forward here. If you could script it, you couldn't improve the situation.

Albert Belle is not your journeyman outfielder. He is the most feared batsman in the game. He hit 50 home runs and 52 doubles this year in a season shortened by almost 20 games. He tied a Babe Ruth record by hitting 17 homers in September.

All year long, this Belle was ringing. Until Sunday.

I wasn't close enough to see, but I wonder if there was a smile on this Casey's countenance and a sneer on this Casey's lips as he came up to the plate with the go-ahead runs on the bases in the seventh Sunday and a new pitcher on the hill.

Atlanta had lifted McMichael. Alejandro Pena, a career fill-in nobody ever mixed up with Sandy Koufax or Don Drysdale, was in there.

Alejandro is not a scary sight. His fastball doesn't hum and his curveball tends to hang. But he wound up and threw. In the stands, 50,000 Atlantans closed their eyes and prayed.

Strike one! The crowd dared to peek between its fingers. Pena doggedly threw again. Mighty Casey--er, Belle--swung. And missed.

The third pitch dipped toward the plate. Albert Belle almost came out of his shoes with the force of his mighty blow.

And he popped up to the catcher! Pena had rung his Belle. Atlanta was on its way to a second-game victory and a 2-0 lead in the Series. "It was a huge, huge out," Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox was to admit later. "You gotta believe it was one of the huge outs of Series history."

The Belle cracked. But you can bet he wasn't around to explain himself after this seventh-inning stretch of his.

Protocol calls for the press to ask in conditions similar to this of the athlete: "What kind of a pitch did you hit?" In this case, of course, it would have been amended to: "What kind of a pitch did you miss?"

But Albert is as inaccessible to the press as the Abominable Snowman. He considers reporters irrelevant. I am thus unable to tell you much about the non-star of this game, the anti-hero. I can't tell you what he likes for breakfast, what his favorite movies are and what he thinks about Bosnia. Also, what kind of a pitch didn't he hit. I mean, was it a curve? A fastball? Does Albert even know?

Albert does not welcome attention even when he succeeds. His idea of a dialogue, I'm told, is "Get lost!"

Even his teammates treat him gingerly. One wrong word and the Belle will be tolling for them too. No one puts any bubble gum on top of Albert's cap. The only conversation Albert wants out of you is "Yes, sir!" Or "Right away, Mr. Belle!"

Quotes from him are, perforce, second-hand, but he has been heard to observe, "I don't feel comfortable with people I don't know." Since Albert is about as easy to get to know as the Dalai Lama or Saddam Hussein, he manages to stay relatively comfortable. Sometimes he goes out of his way to meet people. Once a year, for four years, for instance, he was suspended for charging the mound to make the acquaintance of a pitcher he suspected of throwing at him.

It's easy to find yourself throwing at Albert Belle. He likes to crowd the plate, hanging over it looking for the curveball. A pitcher Belle once charged complained that Belle had been hit with a perfect strike.

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