A true baseball slugger can demand loyalty like no other player. To this day, older baseball fans might convey their emotions for a Ted Williams or Mickey Mantle with a passion normally reserved only for family members or war buddies.
In Cleveland in the 1990’s, we had two such sluggers. They have gone their separate ways, and both are in the news today, for very different reasons.
These sluggers are Albert Belle and Jim Thome.
Albert was the first—a monster of a man, who struck terror into opposing pitchers hearts, long before it was also revealed that he struck terror into the hearts of reporters and clubhouse attendants.
He was a dominating bully. Stories of him in the locker room, smashing a thermostat because he didn’t like the clubhouse temperature, or a boom box because someone’s pre-game jams would ruin his concentration, became legend over the years in C-Town.
But in the beginning—the very beginning, the first year or two after Jacobs Field was built—that same bully attitude was very welcome. The Indians were a laughingstock—the joke of the American League, just as the town was a national joke with late night talk show hosts, for our burning river.
Belle was the bully who broke the smile on the jokers’ faces. Whether or not his 381 career homers belong in Cooperstown, in an injury shortened career, is beside the point. His 50 homer-50 double year was historic. And his pointing to his bulging biceps as a reply to in-game accusations of bat corking? Legendary.
Alas, Belle left, first to the White Sox, and then the Orioles. He was never the same, but the Indians continue winning.
One major reason for this was the other slugger in the news today, Jim Thome.
Jim was as far, temperament wise, from Belle as night is from day. He was a good old country boy, with an “aw shucks” written on his face, before you even asked him a question. He, too, was a physically dominant presence- at 6’4” and 245 pounds, he was all muscle, and you could see that when he hit the ball.
To this day, I believe he is still the record holder for longest homerun at Jacobs Field—a notable achievement, since Mark McGwire once hit a homer so long and far that he blew out a section of the giant scoreboard above the bleachers in left field.
In this post-steroids era, both men have faced rumors of steroid abuse. I believe it’s quite possible in Belle’s case, though there is no actual proof. His temperament was classic rage, as indicated by medical experts as a symptom for players ‘on the juice’.
And today, Belle is in the news for allegedly stalking a former girlfriend in his new home in Scottsdale, Arizona.
I hope he doesn’t read this column. Scottsdale is just a few hours away from where I live. Remember, this is a man who chased kids around the block, trying to hit them with his car after they had egged his house, one Halloween night.
Thome, however, is a different story. The phrase that best describes this man is “corn-fed”. He looks like he has lifted cows since he was three. He is simply a big boned, brawny country boy.
I hated Belle for going to the White Sox. And I tried to hate Thome for going to the Phillies, and then the Sox this year. But when you see that big ol’ grin on that crew-cut topped face, it’s hard to not remember the great years he had for your team, and the great affection he inspired.
Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams fans—you were lucky. Free agency had not been invented in your day.
It’s a lot harder to love your slugger than it used to be.