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Belle Hits Rare Slump During Controversy

June 21, 1996

CLEVELAND (AP) _ Not only is Albert Belle in a controversy, he’s in a slump.

Controversy, of course, is nothing knew to Belle, who served his five-, then three-, then two-game suspension Friday for knocking over Milwaukee’s Fernando Vina in the basepath. But the spotlight used to make him better. This time, it could be affecting his hitting.

Belle is batting .222 since ``The Forearm.″ He is 16-for-72 with only four home runs and 12 RBIs in 18 games after knocking over Vina in a game May 31.

In Cleveland’s three-game sweep of the Boston Red Sox this week, Belle was 2-for-12, including 0-for-4 with three strikeouts against Roger Clemens. At times in the series, he appeared to be pressing, swinging extra hard, almost trying to send another message to his detractors.

Against Clemens, he just looked overmatched. Belle looked at a called-third strike in the second inning, filled his cheeks with air and walked back to the dugout. In the fifth, he failed to drive in what would have been the tying run from third when he lined weakly to short.

With 25 home runs, Belle will be on pace to hit 56 after the doubleheader. Even so, it struck manager Mike Hargrove that a day on the bench might not be such a bad idea.

``A day off will not hurt Albert,″ Hargrove said.

This has been an odd turn of events, not because Belle is at the center of a firestorm over something so seemingly senseless, but because it finally might be affecting his play.

The day he was fined $50,000 for yelling at a reporter during the World Series, Belle hit a home run. The day he was ordered to seek anger counseling, he hit two homers.

No such luck this time. General manager John Hart hopes it’s nothing more than a slump.

``Albert is going to have to perform under this microscope,″ Hart said. ``Do I think he will? Yes. I think he has that ability.″

The extent of the attention on Belle and the Indians cannot be imagined unless you live in Cleveland. Like most days, Belle and the Indians shared the lead story Friday on the midday newscasts. Without exaggeration, the debate about Belle’s suspension is the No. 1 topic of conversation everywhere you go _ from hotel lobbies to bars to the back seats of taxis.

The latest example of the Belle obsession came when a group of fans filed a class action lawsuit, claiming Belle’s absence during the suspension would devalue their season tickets. They dropped the lawsuit before Friday’s doubleheader with the Yankees. Attorneys said something about giving up the fight out of respect for Belle. The newscasters loved this.

But there is no denying Belle’s skills, his popularity in Cleveland or his drawing power. On Wednesday, when many fans thought Belle’s suspension would begin, three elderly folks from Texas could barely contain themselves when told that Belle would play that night.

``He’s a little bit of everything,″ said Ken Sherwin, making his first trip to Jacobs Field. ``There’s the surliness, but he’s just a pussycat inside. Sometimes, people show their shyness by putting on a nasty face.″

It remains to be seen whether Belle will still be shy at the plate after the suspension.

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