Albert Belle is a very angry man.
He used that anger to fuel himself in his playing days, and by the sounds of it his temperament has not changed in the 17 years since he retired from the game. Maybe current day, 50-year-old Albert Belle wouldn’t bull over Fernando Vina for no good reason, but he is still not a man to mince words.
Belle declined to be a part of a recent documentary chronicling the near-dynasty of the powerhouse 1990’s Cleveland Indians, aptly titled The Dynasty That Almost Was. If you have not seen it, you should. It’s a great documentary a little over an hour long that is an accurate (yet painful) trip down memory lane if you are old enough to feel the full nostalgia of the ‘90s teams, and it can serve as informative documentary if you weren’t quite old enough to be shook enough by Jose Mesa’s Game 7 performance to cry in the shower.
Either way, it aired last night, and a small segment featuring then-General Manager John Hart’s reaction to a voicemail from Belle stuck out to me. The terse message was sent to the documentary filmmakers, not Hart, but they chose to play it for him to get his honest, on-the-spot reaction. Here’s what Belle had to say:
I will give you a quote if you want to use it. My memories of the great ‘90s team is, John Hart screwed up our dynasty after the ‘95 season. So, you can quote me on that. Alright thanks, bye.
Hart took a predictably even-keeled response to the recording, saying that it’s just “part of the player’s mentality,” and noting that a general manager can’t make everybody happy.
This mentality is nothing new for Belle. In fact, it’s shockingly similar to sentiment he had in his first year away from Cleveland, when you could at least give him the benefit of the doubt of being emotion shortly after signing with a new team.
Speaking to the Chicago Tribune in 1996, Belle said essentially the same thing, but more detailed in his dissension:
"If you look at our '95 team and you look at the Braves, I thought basically we should have kept the same team," Belle said. "Why tamper with it if it's not broken? They let (Paul) Sorrento go. Then they let Kenny Hill go, and after that they trade Wayne Kirby, Carlos (Baerga), Eddie Murray and the list goes on."
So, was Albert Belle right? Did John Hart screw up th- no, no he didn’t. I’m not going to finish that sentence. Sorry, Albert. You can be a grumpy 50-something all you want, but it doesn’t make you right.
The Dynasty That Never Was kind of skims over Belle’s wrongness with a quick word from Terry Pluto saying he was, in fact, wrong, but it deserves to be explored more.
Now, granted, there’s no way I or just about anyone else can know the true clubhouse impact of Carlos Baerga, Eddie Murray or anyone else Belle didn’t want to see leave. But on the field, their contributions in the years following the subsequent trades would not have guaranteed the Indians a championship to say the least.
Starting with a Baerga, the Indians traded him midway through his worst season as a member of the Indians — a trade that still stings for many Indians fans. The second baseman was slashing .267/.302/.396 with 10 home runs before being dealt after 100 games with the Tribe, and his defense continued to rapidly decline.
Between 1990 and 1995, Baerga was worth 17.3 wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs. In the years following the trade until he retired in 2005, he was worth 0.4 fWAR. If you didn’t know, WAR is a cumulative stat, and cumulatively speaking, 0.4 is way less than 17.3. Baerga didn’t exactly sprint to the finish of his career, mostly due to a series of injuries.
While Baerga was clearly a fan favorite and a strong presence in the clubhouse — two things we can’t really quantify when it comes to “screwing up a dynasty” — he was on a strong trend downward when Hart traded him to the New York Mets for Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino. This was before Kent became a household name and fringe Hall of Fame candidate, and Jose Vizcaino was worse than Baerga over the remainder of his career. Both players were gone after the second half of the season, so the Indians essentially sent the heart of their ‘95 World Series team away for nothing. I can see why Belle would have been upset, I can see why fans would have been upset, but was that enough to ruin a dynasty? I don’t think so.
What about the other transactions?
Eddie Murray was a similar high-caliber player in the clubhouse, but he was far from a hometown hero, having played for nearly two decades before joining the Tribe in 1994, and he retired a year-and-a-half after being traded at the ‘96 deadline. Could the Indians have used the 10 home runs he provided in the second half of 1996? Maybe. But did it ruin a dynasty? Nope.
Paul Sorrento had a career year with the Seattle Mariners in 1997, a 2.3 fWAR season with 31 home runs. He only played for four seasons post-Indians, and was worth negative fWAR for half of them. Hardly a dynasty ruiner.
Kenny Hill was a workhorse for the Texas Rangers in 1996, carrying a 3.63 ERA and 4.01 FIP in 250.2 innings. He was consistently a 1.0-fWAR player after that, but nothing that would suggest the Indians needed him to complete the dynasty they so badly wanted. Unless maybe he could hypothetically close out a Game 7.
Albert Belle’s extradition from Cleveland came because of his own attitude. In The Dynasty That Never Was, Hart essentially says that the Indians let Belle “explore the free agent market” in the 1997 offseason because they didn’t want to deal with his piss-poor attitude any longer. Belle, naturally, saw it a little bit different.
From the same Chicago Tribune piece above:
"That's just their way of negotiating," Belle said of the trade for Williams. "I wasn't real happy about it. I felt like we initiated the long-term contract talks in spring training and had nine months to work out a deal. It just didn't look like it was going anywhere.
"I thought it was pretty unprofessional--their approach, the way they went about certain things and the way they changed the organization around over the last couple years. I don't think it was a pretty sight."
Belle struggled in his first season in Chicago, slashing .274/.332/.491 with 30 home runs and just 1.9 fWAR. He did have a huge game against his old team, though, and he celebrating by “making an obscene gesture” at fans that ended up making his wallet $5,000 lighter. Considering he was playing under what was at the time the largest contract ever (five years, $55 million), it was probably worth it to him to lash out at booing fans. He did also have a monster season in 1998, putting up a .328/.399/.655 and second highest fWAR total of his career, 7.1. But his wins above replacement split in half the following season and he fizzled out and retired after the 2000 season.
You could probably make a case that, had Albert stayed in Cleveland in 1997 the Tribe might’ve won. Maybe they have too much of a lead for Mesa to blow, maybe the image of Craig Counsell jumping on home plate won’t be burned into the Cleveland psyche forever. But it was far from a move that ruined a dynasty. You could also make the same argument that another year of Belle’s antics would have been a catalyst to ruin the team, instead of getting them within one out of a World Series and continuing to be a winning franchise for nearly a decade.
One big thing that Belle fails to note is that the Indians kept winning after he left, after Hart “ruined the dynasty.” The Tribe finished first or second in the division every year from 1995 until 2001, which is amazing streak for any sport, let alone one that shifts as fast as baseball.
Part of me can sympathize with Albert’s feelings. I remember being a very angry six-year-old when the Indians trade away my second favorite player, Kenny Lofton (sorry, Griffey was and always will be No. 1) — I can’t imagine being a player on a team as beloved as the ‘95 Indians having everything rapidly change under you. I especially can’t imagine being someone as emotional as Belle trying to process all that.
But a bigger part of me wishes Albert Belle would put all this behind and, for lack of a better term, grow up. He missed his own induction into the Indians Hall of Fame last year — and once again turned it around and blamed the Indians — but maybe someday he can be properly honored, in person, for all he did for Cleveland.