Saturday, June 14, 1997
Pomp amid unusual circumstances

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jody Pettyjohn wanted everything to be perfect. Only no one bothered to tell her what perfection entailed.

Interleague baseball begins without established protocol, or a standardized set of instructions. Pettyjohn, the Cincinnati Reds' director of stadium operations, had the Opening Day bunting hung for Friday's state visit from the Chicago White Sox. She arranged extra security for Albert Belle.

But when Rick Stowe, the equipment manager, inquired about the 12 dozen American League baseballs that would be needed when the White Sox hit, he caught Pettyjohn unprepared. She reached anxiously for her walkie-talkie before realizing she had succumbed to a practical joke.

National League baseballs are entirely adaptable to American League bats, of course, as Belle and Ray Durham would later demonstrate. In their first visit to Cincinnati since the infamous October of 1919, the White Sox homered twice and prevailed, 3-1.

There are fundamental differences between the two leagues, but this much is constant: Good hitters crush bad pitches.

''A guy beat us (who) in our meeting we discussed wasn't going to beat us,'' said Reds manager Ray Knight. ''There was no reason for that ball to be anywhere near the strike zone.''

Knight was referring to Pete Schourek's two-out, full-count sinker to Belle in the top of the sixth inning. The one that bounced beyond the fence in right-center field. Belle's two-run homer represented the margin of difference in the game, and also, in a larger sense, the reason for it.

Interleague play was conceived as a means for baseball to get more mileage out of its megastars. As one of the game's most prolific power hitters - and indisputably baseball's richest reprobate - Albert Belle is big box office.

''It was a treat to see Albert,'' said Barry Larkin, speaking both as a ballplayer and a baseball fan.

The Reds sold 31,682 tickets for Friday's interleague opener - their largest turnout since Opening Day - and they exceeded their average 1997 attendance by more than 10,000.

Some spectators were surely drawn by historical significance, but the majority seemed more interested in booing Belle. In a single night, the grumpy outfielder shattered Cincinnati's reputation for politeness to visiting players. It was almost as if the crowd had been trucked in from Cleveland.

They turned out Friday to see a pair of fourth-place teams, despite a lack of promotion and dire weather forecasts. An hour before the game, Jody Pettyjohn was carrying a weather map that would have worried Noah.

The gloomy forecast would prove inaccurate, but Belle's disposition did not improve. Wandering across the field during batting practice, Belle regarded his new surroundings with contempt.

''No wonder attendance is down,'' he said, loudly enough to be heard by a pair of reporters. ''This is a bleeping hellhole.'' Later, despite the warnings of several seasoned media types, Reds owner Marge Schott asked White Sox manager Terry Bevington to act as her go-between with Belle. She wanted to have her picture taken with him before the White Sox took batting practice.

Bevington asked. Belle rejected the request with a look most millionaires reserve for tax audits, and quickly distanced himself from Schott and her St. Bernard.

''You guys were right,'' Schott told reporters as she scurried from the scene.

So, it turned out, were the scouting reports. With Sox first baseman Frank Thomas sidelined by a muscle strain and Harold Baines immobilized without the designated hitter rule, Belle was clearly the Chicago player to be pitched around. He was the only man in either lineup who had hit more than six home runs all season, and the only man in the ballpark who had hit as many as 50 in one season.

''I tried to sink one away, and he hit it just enough,'' Schourek said. ''I was stunned that he hit the ball that hard. (But) That's why he makes $10 million.''