|Albert Belle, center, shares a laugh with former Indians teammates Carlos Baerga, left, and Kenny Lofton. (AP)|
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Spring training is one big reunion after everybody scatters for vacation. And the best part is, you never know who you'll run into.
Sometimes, it even draws recluses out of hiding.
"I wanted to see the guys," Albert Belle, 45, said as he surveyed Indians camp Tuesday morning. "We're rehashing old memories."
It's not quite that simple. But then, with a man as complicated as Belle, it never was.
Two stars from the classic Cleveland teams of the mid-1990s are in uniform for part of the spring as guest instructors. And Carlos Baerga and Kenny Lofton aren't alone: Their former manager, Mike Hargrove, is suiting up, too.
Anyway, Belle lives across the Valley in Scottsdale, and Baerga and Lofton were the driving forces behind the impromptu, unexpected and totally shocking reunion.
Belle has had zero contact with the Indians since leaving as a free agent following the 1996 season. Not even a trip back to Jacobs/Progressive Field for some ceremonial honor or first pitch.
"Carlos put in a couple of extra harsh words" to coax him to Cleveland's camp, Lofton said, grinning.
"I really miss Albert a lot," Baerga said. "And I wanted to see him."
His close-cropped hair almost all gray now, his trim beard containing far more salt than pepper, Belle smiled and laughed often Tuesday morning. He was clearly touched and happy to be back with some of the guys who helped him produce his greatest moments in the game.
"You know what?" Belle said. "I got hurt in 2000, and I couldn't play in 2001 and I was just devastated," said Belle, who was forced into retirement that spring with a hip injury. "I didn't watch any baseball until Game 7 of the World Series in '01 when the Diamondbacks beat the Yankees."
Those painful days having receded with the years, Belle said he now keeps up with baseball on television and usually attends one Diamondbacks game a year. Not long ago, he went to Arizona's new spring training complex and visited with old teammate and current D-backs pitching coach Charles Nagy.
"I'm seeing the guys one at a time," Belle said.
The early-morning scene outside, just behind the Indians' clubhouse, was touching, funny and, for those who remember how a baseball team turned a city on with its fire, utterly nostalgic. Those Indians won five consecutive AL Central titles from 1995-1999 (Belle left via free agency for the White Sox after the '96 season). They played in front of a sellout streak in Jacobs Field that would reach 455 consecutive games.
Baerga, Lofton, Belle and Hargrove swapped stories, asked each other questions and, for a short time, were joined by former catcher -- and current Indians coach -- Sandy Alomar Jr.
The men clearly hadn't seen each other in quite awhile and were thoroughly enjoying the reunion. Belle said he hadn't seen Baerga since the former infielder was playing for the Diamondbacks in 2004. Said he hadn't seen Hargrove since 2000, when Hargrove was managing the Orioles. Hargrove asked Belle where he's living now.
"I think our '95 team was pretty incredible," Belle said. "The Yankees had a pretty good team in '98, but I think our lineup was way better than theirs. It all started with Kenny Lofton at the top. As soon as he'd get on base, he wreaked havoc and we started licking our chops. ...
"I think everybody in Cleveland had some kind of Indians jersey or cap."
Talk about glory days.
"We got to the World Series, and it was incredible for the fans. ... We had a great time," Belle said. "I thought we could have pulled it out.
"I wish we could have stayed together as a team for a few more years. It just didn't work out."
Those cheers now faint echoes, Belle is a "stay-at-home dad", a father to four girls ranging in age from 11 to "almost two." Still guarded, he said he preferred not to reveal their names.
He smiled when asked which was tougher, facing David Cone and Roger Clemens back in the day or being a dad.
"Facing Cone and Clemens was easy," he joked. "Seems like all the kids get tired and cranky at the same time."
The kids know their pop was a baseball player, he said, via the random baseball cards that still arrive in the mail with autograph requests, or when he periodically pops DVDs of the old days into his system.
Had his hip allowed, he would have liked to have played longer. He had resurfacing surgery on his right hip in 2001, he said, and he'll have surgery on his left hip this winter.
He plays a lot of golf these days, watches baseball (Albert Pujols is his favorite hitter) and he sometimes thinks he'd like to return to baseball in some capacity.
"I've thought about it," he said. "Maybe one day I will. I like to stay at home and raise my kids. Maybe someday it will be different.
"Before I got married, I interviewed with a couple of teams and it didn't work out."
He remembers his first major-league hit, against Nolan Ryan in old Municipal Stadium, to help spark a three-run first on July 15, 1989. He remembers "all of those incredible come-from-behind games at the Jake, the city in an uproar."
Lofton and Baerga reveled in the scene as Belle talked, sprinkling comments into the conversation when they felt something needed to be said or to help spark another memory.
Someone asked a question about Progressive Field, and Lofton interjected.
"It's The Jake," Lofton said. "It's forever The Jake. Sorry."
Belle talked about how intimidating those old Indians were, still appreciating how pitchers like Dennis Martinez and Jose Mesa protected their hitters.
"The game's different now," Belle said. "
Asked about mending fences in Cleveland, Belle said, "I thought the fences were already mended. That was a long time ago."
That's the thing about free agency, he said wistfully, and it is. Players come and players go. The great times can be fleeting, and sometimes you don't realize how great they were until they're gone.
Who can forget Game 1 of the 1995 playoffs against Boston when, after then-Red Sox manager Kevin Kennedy asked the umpires to check his bat for cork after his 11th-inning homer tied the game at 4-4, Belle looked into the television camera near the Indians dugout and pointed to his biceps?
"That was a fun time," Belle said. "We were a great team. We had a lot of come-from-behind-stories."
He was always on edge, usually surly and often froze out the media. In a classic moment a few years ago, Indians beat man Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer asked him during a conversation whether he ever used steroids. No, Belle told Hoynes, "I was just an angry black man."
Tuesday, smiling, he said, "I talked to the media. They just didn't like the words I was saying."
Yes, he said, he enjoyed himself immensely throughout his career, even if it did not always appear like it to those on the outside.
"I look back, and there are some great memories," said Belle, who finished with 381 homers, 1,239 RBI and 1,726 hits over 12 seasons. "I had a nice career."
As a few current Indians trickled out of the clubhouse to begin their day, they couldn't help but notice the spectacle they were passing. Laughter, jokes and, for the longest time, the pulse of a team that produced some of the greatest hardball moments Cleveland has ever witnessed.
"What we should do is get a uniform and scrimmage those guys," Lofton joked.
And they all laughed like it was 1995 all over again.