Wait… Albert Belle did what!?!?
I don’t remember much from Friday, May 31, 1996. I’m sure it was just like any other day. I woke up, went to school, did all the typical things a 6th grader does at the end of the school year, and then came home and played outside until it was dark. Nothing eventful, as you would probably expect.
Because it was a Friday night, that meant a later bed time, 11 pm to be exact. That also meant an opportunity to watch channel 43’s extended sports segment, Sports Extra with Jeff Phelps. Like most local area sports segments from back in the day, the focus was primarily the Indians. They were good, they were the talk of the town, and they had earned the spotlight. That night’s highlights weren’t much different from any other night – Manny Ramirez homered, Dennis Martinez tossed seven solid innings, and Albert Belle destroyed Fernando Vina.
Yes, May 31, 1996 was the day Albert Belle delivered a devastating forearm shiver to the face of Fernando VIna and in the process added yet another name to his seemingly never-ending list of mortal enemies.
How did we get here?
So naturally, you’re probably wondering to yourself, “Why are we talking about this?” That’s a fair question. Seeing as how this event occurred well over 20 years ago, it serves little to no purpose for discussion in 2018. But, it’s also the all-star break, I’m tired of talking about Manny Machado, and gosh darn it… I’ll talk about whatever I want to talk about.
This is also 100% the fault of Twitter. So if you want to place blame somewhere, that’s the target.
A conversation that began innocently enough between several different people about Albert Belle’s second half performance in 1995 and the loss of the AL MVP award to Mo Vaughn quickly spiraled out of control and into a discussion about the Vina incident. It was a discussion we were dragged into by our good friend, Steve Kinsella.
— Always The Jake (@alwaysthejake) July 12, 2018
We weren’t about to run away from a challenge, no matter how pointless it may be. So, after about a week’s worth of googling and Zapruder-like analysis of grainy mid-90’s standard definition video, let’s get to the bottom of what happened and more importantly… why it happened.
So What Happened?
Here’s the video from the Brewers telecast. You be the judge.
The play itself looks rather self-explanatory. A ball is hit weakly to second. Vina fields the ball and attempts to turn a 4-3 double play by tagging the runner (Belle) and throwing to first. Rather than stopping or surrendering the out, Belle instead chooses to run over Vina. But why? What prompted such a violent and unnecessary display of aggression from Belle? The play itself was ruled legal on the field by the umpiring crew with no discipline immediately taken.
When discussing this play in question, the consensus is generally, in some way, shape, or form, that “Albert Belle is a jerk and this is just the kind of thing a jerk like Albert Belle would do.” Perhaps that’s true. Albert Belle’s transgressions are well documented. He once cursed out Hannah Storm during the World Series, threw a baseball at a photographer just doing his job, destroyed a clubhouse thermostat with a baseball bat because someone had the audacity to change the temperature, and chased down kids in his Ford Explorer for egging his house on Halloween, among other things. Within the greater context of his general behavior, running over an opponent in the baseline seems almost tame by comparison.
But Why Did It Happen?
The fact of the matter is that this event was the culmination of several smaller events throughout the course of the game. Allow me to explain.
If you watch the video again, you will notice a very important point being made by the Brewers play-by-play man, Bill Paschke.
“Oh! This is just like the play in the third inning. And it was Albert Belle back in the third inning. This time he lays it on Vina, even more so.” -Bill Paschke
This was not the first run in between Belle and Vina in this game. However, the previous third inning encounter was not as confrontational as Paschke made it seem. In fact, Belle was chewed out by Indians first base coach Dave Nelson for failing to break up the third inning double play, explaining to Bryant Gumble in a 1996 interview that he had just finished telling Belle to break up any double plays.
“Now it’s three outs. So Albert’s standing out on the infield, and I go out there and I said, ‘Dammit Albert, what did I tell you?’ I said, ‘You cost us a run, and you should have took the guy out.'”
By all accounts, Belle’s decision to plow over Vina was an intentional decision to follow orders with Belle later saying,
“I definitely had no intentions of trying to hurt him or end his career or knock him out for the rest of the season.”
Belle’s teammates also came to his defense, with starting pitcher Jack McDowell saying the following in regards to the collision,
“Albert didn’t do anything wrong. He let him get away with it the first time but he didn’t let him get away with it the second time. It was a good clean hard hit.”
Now, while Belle may not have had malicious intentions towards Vina and may have been following orders, it is possible that the extreme nature in which he followed those orders was rooted in spite towards Nelson. Albert Belle was never known for his ability to take criticism. If anything, the manner in which Belle behaved and the subsequent punishment, in this case a suspension, could be directed back to Nelson out of spite. That he was only, “following orders” and that Nelson is the one to blame. Again, because “Albert Belle is a jerk and this is the type of thing a jerk like Albert Belle would do.”
However, there is another layer to this onion, that being the way in which the game unfolded and how Belle came to be on base in the eighth inning.
In a 9-3 ball game, Albert Belle was hit by a pitch to lead off the top half of the eighth inning. That’s not to say this was intentional. However, during the mid-90’s and prior to their move to the National League, the Indians and Brewers were division rivals. The Indians had beaten up the Brewers the season prior. There’s no way to know for certain if Marshall Boze intentionally hit Albert Belle out of frustration or if Belle’s collision with Vina was somehow retaliatory itself. What we do know, though, is Belle’s collision with Vina was just the precursor for what was next.
It Didn’t Stop There
In Belle’s next at bat in the top half of the ninth inning, he was immediately hit by Brewers reliever Terry Burrows. This was retaliatory and everyone knew it. And surprisingly, despite his penchant for charging the mound, Belle took his base with little to no incident. At least until he made his way back to the Indians dugout.
At the time, it was reported that Belle instructed Indians reliever Julian Tavarez to “throw at a Brewers hitter.” This has never been confirmed or denied. However, Tavarez’s first pitch of the ninth inning, which sailed wide of Brewers catcher Mike Matheny, would lend credence to the assertion. Matheny charged the mound, a bench clearing brawl ensued, and Julian Tavarez body slammed umpire Joe Brinkman.
Things didn’t stop once the game ended, either. Tensions from the night before carried over into the following day. Benches cleared in the first after Kenny Lofton shoved Vina on an attempted pick-off play at second. Carlos Baerga was hit with a pitch from Angel Miranda in the third and Jack McDowell plunked Vina in the fourth. Order was finally restored after these incidents, with both teams finally calling it even.
For their roles in the May 31st incident, multiple players were handed down suspensions by the American League president Gene Budig. However, all three eventually had their suspensions reduced to three games. Belle’s was reduced on the basis that the play against Vina was ruled legal at the time and no action was taken by the umpires on the field. Tavarez’s body slam of Joe Brinkman was ruled as an accident and not of malicious intent. Matheny’s suspension was reduced last on the basis that he drop his appeal and begin his suspension immediately.
As for Albert Belle and his legacy in Cleveland, this remains as one of the stains on what was a historic career. As of this writing, Belle still ranks second in club history with 242 home runs, second in all-time slugging percentage, and 10th in RBI. However, his surly attitude, transgressions against both fans and media, and his subsequent departure to the division rival White Sox for more money tarnished this legacy, nearly irreparably. In fact, Belle’s relationship with the team and city only began repairing itself in recent years with the slugger making appearances at Spring Training.
Ultimately though, the decision on what happened that night is yours to make and yours alone. Was Belle acting on orders to break up the double play, only to have his effort carry him too far to the side of excessive. Or, is this simply another in a long list of examples that “Albert Belle is a jerk and this is the kind of thing a jerk like Albert Belle would do?” Honestly, only Albert can probably answer that question for sure.