SARASOTA, Fla. - Albert Belle should shed his Sunday manners. Baseball's highest-paid sociopath is much more interesting as Norman Bates than Norman Rockwell.
His best behavior is boring, like a volcano during a dormant period or Eddie Haskell in the presence of June Cleaver. It is less dangerous, to be sure, but dreadfully dull.
Belle's first spring training appearance with the Chicago White Sox was regrettably short on rage Thursday. Except for some screaming line drives, he hardly made himself heard. No tantrums. No threats. No violence. No news.
Belle took a few rounds of rust-removing batting practice, and then fielded some softball questions flawlessly. Inquiries about his recent gambling admissions - the latest scandal in a calamitous career - were declared off-limits.
Wednesday, Belle had issued a prepared statement denying that he has ever bet on baseball, and declared the subject closed. Thursday's press conference was one of those ''Baseball Only'' briefings popularized by Pete Rose.
''Once I step between the white lines, I can't control what people think of me,'' Belle said. ''But I can hit home runs, drive in some runs, steal a few bases and make a couple of spectacular catches. That's all I'm concerned about. I'm not going to change. I've been successful. The image thing will take care of itself.''
A fine home for Albert
No doubt, Albert Belle has this one nailed. The baggage he carries from Cleveland is of little consequence in Chicago, a city which prizes winning above citizenship. If Belle can help carry the White Sox to their first World Series since 1959, the anti-social aspects of his personality will likely be overlooked. If Chicago can embrace Dennis Rodman, Albert Belle ought to be easy.
On paper, it is a perfect match. Belle is to hit behind Frank Thomas on Terry Bevington's lineup card, creating a 1-2 punch that could rival Mantle & Maris or Ruth & Gehrig for destructive capabilities. Belle and Thomas have driven in more runs than any other hitters in baseball over the last five years. Together, they are terrifying.
''You're between a rock and a hard spot,'' Bevington said. ''Pitchers can face Frank and hope he gets himself out, which he won't, or they can pitch to Albert. I'm glad I don't have to worry about that.''
Thomas hit .349 with 40 home runs and 134 runs batted in last season, yet he might have done more with a bigger force in the on-deck circle. Belle's presence should prompt pitchers to deal with the Big Hurt more directly. It is an agonizing choice, but pitching to Thomas is probably better than facing Belle with an extra body on base.
Belle hit 48 home runs for the Indians last season, down from 50 the previous year, and his 148 RBI were the most produced in the American League since 1949. Though he has served five suspensions during the last six seasons - for throwing a ball into the stands; corking a bat; belligerent baserunning; and twice charging the pitcher's mound - there has been no more productive hitter in baseball.
The price of production
Bottom line, production is all that matters. For sluggers of Belle's stature, personality is not always a prerequisite. (See Bonds, Barry). When the White Sox signed Belle to a five-year, $55 million contract last November, they were prepared to accept some of his problems in exchange for his power. Given enough money, this is a trade any team would make.
''I feel like I can come over and take some pressure off some guys,'' Belle said Thursday. ''I'll be glad to take all the pressure.''
History tells us Belle won't be able to handle all the pressure without some explosions. It says he is an unstable character always close to combustion. It says the happy face he is putting on at present is a facade. Like he says, the image thing will take care of itself.