September 20, 1996 in Sports

No Matter Who’s Counting, This Looks Like Belle’s Year

Terry Pluto Akron Beacon Journa

He might hit 50 homers.

He should drive in 150 runs.

He probably will bat .300.

Sounds like Albert Belle, and sounds like an MVP season.

That’s right, Belle is the Most Valuable Player in the American League - now more than ever. Just ask Chicago’s Frank Thomas. He says so, even though he doesn’t have a vote. The dreaded sportswriters do.

The White Sox superstar says Belle is a hitting machine. Every year, he hits home runs. Every year, he drives in runs. That’s an incredible amount of homers and runs batted in.

This year, he could be a 50-150 man, which is more impressive than his 50 homers and 50 doubles last year.

Heading into Wednesday night’s game in Chicago, Belle had 141 RBIs. That means he is producing runs, which is the definition of the cleanup hitter’s job. He comes to bat with men on base, and he sends them home.

No one has done that better than Belle in 1996.

Belle is hitting .306 with 46 home runs. Those sound like numbers you only expect to find next to a name such as Lou Gehrig, numbers from a time when baseball was always played in the afternoon and never on TV.

But that is Belle this year.

Day after day, year after year, the man hits.

But at age 30, Albert JoJuan Belle is hitting better than he ever has.

Some of you might disagree. Some will insist that Belle’s banner year was 1995 and will never forgive those of us in the media for not picking Belle as MVP last year.

I didn’t have a vote, but if I did, it would have gone to Jose Mesa. His season (46 saves in 48 tries and a 1.13 ERA) was as statistically spectacular as Belle’s.

What made it more important is that Mesa was the late-inning superman early in the year when the Indians didn’t have a clue who’d save the day.

But this year has been different. This year it was Belle who was hot early, Belle who helped Cleveland to a commanding 33-14 start.

When Belle slumped, was suspended and went on a six-week stretch of one stupid stunt after another, the Indians stumbled.

From May 27 to July 7, Belle batted .215 with seven homers, and the Indians’ record was 19-21.

That was when Belle seemed preoccupied with feeling persecuted by the American League office and the media. He may have been upset when contract negotiations stalled and the Indians didn’t make him the highest-paid player in the game.

And suddenly, it became apparent that he would not break Roger Maris’ record of 61 homers, which he believed was within reach. Then something happened, something that said something good about Belle.

He just cooled it. He stopped thinking about 61 homers. He did little to draw attention to himself except by playing as only he can.

What Belle discovered was that when he cooled it, his bat heated up.

What Belle did in August and September was just drive in runs.

If it took a home run, then he went for the fence. If it meant being patient and whacking a single to right field, he did just that.

As usual, he played every day. He played hurt. He seemed to pay more attention to defense and has made some startling catches in left field.

Some will say that Alex Rodriguez of Seattle is the MVP. Others may support Texas’ Juan Gonzalez or even Thomas. But history and production are on Belle’s side.

For the fifth consecutive season, he has 100 RBIs. He quietly has been in the middle of the Tribe’s late-season drive to the Central Division title.

This season belongs to Belle - and so does the MVP award.

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Terry Pluto Akron Beacon Journal

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