LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Albert Belle wants a puff piece. He is being interviewed on a condition: no "negatives." There are to be no questions about, ahem, problems and incidents. No mention of lawsuits, suspensions, reprimands, dark moods and deep anger. Nothing, in short, about the gritty substance of Albert Belle's character.
"I'm tired of seeing negative stuff," Belle says. "I'm sure everybody else is. Enough negative stuff has been said."
Right. And who am I to argue with Belle as he assaults four pieces of fried chicken and a baked potato? We are at a Las Vegas casino cafe early in February. Twice he has asked if I am expensing the meal and twice I have assured him. No reason to spoil his dinner, and risk a scene, by dwelling on negatives. Indeed, I am compelled to write something nice and here it is:
Albert Belle has a good appetite. Carrion birds do not pick bones as clean. His enjoyment of a potato is so pure, he doesn't bother with fork and knife. Well-mannered Cleveland writers might interpret this as a violation of Amy Vanderbilt; I see it as a lusty zest for life.
Another nicety: Belle is so good he will break Roger Maris' single-season home run record this year, the 35th anniversary of No. 61.
"Weren't you at the World Series?" he asks.
"I remember your face. I don't remember names, but I remember faces."
Inasmuch as 1,000 reporters cover a World Series, Belle's memory serves him well. But I hasten to remind him of our first meeting. During the American League Championship Series, I approached his cubicle in the Indians clubhouse. He was pulling on socks and stirrups. I stood next to him for 30 seconds; he did not look up. Finally, he said, "I don't like people standing over me. You better get the bleep away." He never saw my face.
"You probably remember my shoes," I say. "I'm wearing the same shoes."
"Oh, yeah," he says. "I thought I recognized your shoes."
The Sultan of Surly has a sense of humor. He likes to tease, and he can appreciate his own caricatured image as a hulking tough. During a photo session with photographer Todd Bigelow, he grinned, momentarily. "Careful, you'll ruin your image," I said. He reverted to character, screwing his face into a hard slate. I thought I heard him growl.
Belle's sense of his own menace reminds me of Sonny Liston, a former heavyweight champion, knockout artist and bully. Historian Bert Randolph Sugar writes of Liston: "For all his raw power and size, Liston's most remarkable attribute was psychological rather than physical. He made a science out of inspiring fear in the hearts and minds of his opponents, breaking their wills with a stony stare during the referee's instructions, and stuffing towels under his robe to make his enormous physique look even bigger and more intimidating. In short, he was 'the meanest mother---- on the block, and not only didn't he care who knew it, he wanted everyone to know it."'
Belle is baseball's version of heavyweight champion -- home run king. He hit 50 last season -- in a 144-game schedule, mind you -- and four more in the postseason. Simply, he scares the hell out of pitchers. They see what Liston's opponents used to see: angry malevolence. Belle's Bluto-like torso, at 6-2, 210 pounds, is built to punish. A muscular furrow runs across his forehead. Dark eyes speak a language of domination -- particularly when they are fixed on dinner.
"I would be intimidated if I'm a pitcher," I say. "Do you encourage that?"
"I think I have the pitcher thinking that when I come up he better have his best stuff," Belle says. "He may get me once, he may get me twice. But sooner or later, I'll get him. Maybe not this year, but next year. He knows as soon as he makes a mistake, he's in a lot of trouble."
He cites the example of Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Juan Guzman, a dominant starter until suffering a sore arm two seasons ago. When Guzman was healthy, Belle says, he had "a killer instinct, the eye of a tiger." After his arm went bad, his eyes were furtive, afraid.
"Do they avoid eye contact?" I ask.
"Some do," he says. "Some just look at the catcher."
Boxers stare down one another when receiving a referee's instructions, I point out. Belle acknowledges the similarity.
"Some (boxers) don't like to look at the other guy," he says. "Some try to intimidate the other guy. Some guys are pretty confident. They've been training hard, so they're going to come out with their best stuff.
"The way I look at it, a pitcher always is going to come out with his best stuff. I anticipate that so I will be ready for him."
Simply put, Belle comes to the plate ready to rumble.