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No Place to Hide For Baseball’s No. 1 Target

June 18, 1996

NEW YORK (AP) _ It’s a steamy evening in the Bronx when Albert Belle emerges from the dugout for batting practice. He’s ready to take his swings.

So are the fans.

``Hey, you bum! Don’t start no trouble tonight!″ snipes an Eddie Munster-lookalike _ minus a front tooth _ from the first row of the box seats.

Belle has taken just six steps onto the field, and already it’s easy to tell this is going to be another long, hot night for baseball’s No. 1 target.

The two guys in Box 132, Row K are all set. They’re sitting in the left-field bleachers, right behind where Belle plays, and are standing when the Cleveland slugger comes to take his position for the first time.

``You jerk! You belong in a zoo!″ snarls the one with the spiked, bleached blond hair.

``Belle, twirl on this!″ shouts the other, wearing a 10,000 Maniacs T-shirt, as he thrusts both of his middle fingers in the air.

This is mild taunting, compared to how it will get later, especially once the alcohol starts kicking in. In all, when Belle is within earshot, the abuse is nonstop, and not more than 30 seconds go by at any time without someone letting loose.

No matter where Belle goes on the road these days, the fans are waiting. He heard it last month in Detroit, where the insults were so harsh that Indians manager Mike Hargrove said he was tempted to go into the stands. It was worse in Milwaukee after Belle elbowed Brewers second baseman Fernando Vina in the face.

Occasionally, Belle eggs on fans, inviting them to take their best shots. At Yankee Stadium, perhaps the roughest park in the majors for visiting players, he did not turn around one single time Thursday night to face the hecklers sitting 75 feet away.

No one claims Belle is a saint. He’s had run-ins with fans, reporters and photographers, and is currently appealing a five-game suspension for flattening Vina.

But, wonders Hargrove, does paying $6 for a seat entitle anyone to be so vicious?

``There isn’t a person in the game who’s subject to the volume of abuse Albert hears,″ Hargrove said. ``It’s not right. He might not be the most personable personality with the fans, but he doesn’t cheat them with his performance.″

``You boo, you call someone a bum, OK,″ he said. ``But what they say to him every night, it’s over the line.″

Try telling that to the burly guy with the beard in section 34. Two pitches into the bottom of the first inning, he’s working on his second beer.

``Belle, you’re a ...″ the big man bellows, using another word that begins with ``b.″

Four pitches later, the fans in the more-rowdy right-center bleachers chime in.

``Albert Sucks! Albert Sucks!″ they jeer. Not to be outdone, the fans in left field start a sing-song, ``Jo-ey, Jo-ey.″

When Belle began his big league career, he was Joey, not Albert. But after leaving a rehabilitation center for an alcohol problem the next year, he said he wanted to make a fresh start and asked to be called Albert.

Some of these fans, though, want to call him something else. Most of them punctuate it with a profanity.

``Betty Ford! Betty Ford!″ a few shout, calling out the name of another treatment center.

``Corkhead!″ a kid yells, reminding Belle of his 1994 suspension for using a corked bat.

``Where’s Vina?″ rags another. ``He should’ve killed you, you piece of trash!″

In the middle of the game, four frat boys notice a college-aged girl finishing a bottle of Snapple Pink Lemonade.

``You done with that? Can I have it?″ one of them says.

``What for?″ she asks innocently.

The guy just points at Belle. She gives it to him.

On this sticky evening, nothing gets thrown. The next night, the game has to be stopped twice after a souvenir bat and a baseball are chucked in Belle’s direction.

By the bottom of the ninth, the Indians lead 6-2. The Yankees are coming up for their last chance, and two fans in left field are moving down to the front row for their last licks.

``You want a piece of this?″ screams a man, all 5-foot-5 of him, while clenching his fists and jaw.

Dressed in a white T-shirt that reads, ``Only The Strong Survive,″ he is joined by his drunk buddy. Soon, the game is over and the two hecklers are back at it, shouting as Belle jogs away to the clubhouse.

``Bring out, Belle!″ the little guy shouts. ``See you tomorrow!″

Batting practice begins in just 20 hours.

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