CLEVELAND — Albert Belle let loose. He barely waited, and then he uncorked. Had it been a baseball, it might have cleared the fence — the way the ball he hit Thursday night cleared the fence. But this time it was not a baseball that Albert attacked; it was people, regular people, trying to do their job. These people happened to be reporters, and so in Belle’s mind they don’t count. It’s amazing how men who spend their lives lifting weights and watching television think that people with brains are the inferior ones.

“Get the bleep out!” Belle yelled, and other choice niceties, none of which

can be reprinted here. This was not the locker room so, please, no speeches about the sanctity of that space. This was the dugout, before Game 2 of this World Series. There were people around, talking, interviewing, working, as there are always people around before a World Series game. These people often include the commissioner — if there is one — league presidents, Hall of Famers, radio announcers, TV broadcasters, baseball writers, politicians. The tradition has existed since long before Albert Belle was born.

Never mind. Belle saw people between him and his bats, and this apparently was just too much to bear. So he exploded — and his target, oddly enough, was a female TV reporter, Hannah Storm, from NBC, one of the networks dumb enough to sink millions into broadcasting baseball. NBC pays baseball owners, and baseball owners take the money and pay their players. So, in a not-so-indirect way, Hannah Storm was responsible for Belle’s fat wallet.

Here’s what he said to his benefactor:

“Get the bleep out, you bleeping . . . bleep . . . bleep.”

On this went, for four minutes. To Storm’s credit, she didn’t move. She was there to interview Kenny Lofton, and she waited until Belle, like all bullies, eventually went away. Observers shook their heads and looked at the ground, in awkward silence.

“Get the bleep out.”

A World Series moment. He’s not the only one

It is worth bringing this story up this morning, because the World Series is moving to Game 6, an exciting post-season, to be sure. Baseball is in a reflective mood, and experts are studying the TV ratings and box office receipts, and feeding them through the computer to prove that the sport is no longer on the critical list.

Well. You can study all the numbers you want. But the cancer that is eating

baseball does not reside in charts or cash flows, but in the hearts of the players and the owners involved. And as long as they continue to think of themselves as some privileged group, beyond caring about the audience, this sport will take on water like the Titanic.

Belle’s recent tirade is hardly the first. He has been abusive to reporters all year, and he has been just as abusive to fans. He tells them to bleep off; he tells kids to get out of his face. At the All-Star Game, when an ABC reporter asked Belle for an interview — and ABC only reaches more than 100 million homes, so we can see what a waste of time that is — Belle turned and walked away without a word. The reporter said, “You could at least be polite.”

And Belle shouted, “What do I care about polite?” and left the room.

There you have it. What do they care about polite? From Belle’s pouting to Jack McDowell flipping off the fans, to George Steinbrenner hiring both Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, to Eddie Murray, the other night, after winning Game 3 with a dramatic 11th-inning hit and then refusing to talk about it, instead issuing a few terse sentences to a PR flack to be distributed on paper, as if Murray is the pope all of a sudden. All this speaks to an arrogance that comes from money and privilege.

It remains the biggest death threat this sport has ever faced. An ugly arrogance

Now, this problem extends far beyond the media. I know some people think of media the way they think of lawyers. So when athletes deride reporters, mistreat them, ignore them or insult them, there are fans who say, “Well, the person must have had it coming.”

I am here to tell you that’s not true. There are bad journalists and good journalists, just as there are bad athletes and good athletes. But there is no inherent reason to hate the media if you are an athlete. These are the people celebrating your exploits to the American public, making you famous and rich.

Still, an arrogance continues — and way beyond media, to fans, to the community. For every Kirby Puckett, there are three Vince Colemans; for every Alan Trammell there are three Barry Bondses. This year in baseball was supposed to heal bad feelings, but after a few early weeks of autographs, players returned to their aloof ways.

And so did fans. You can show me all the numbers you want; I defy anyone to say the interest in baseball is the same as when Carlton Fisk waved his home run out of Fenway Park in ’75, or when Kirk Gibson jumped out of his shoes in
’84. The passion is missing. The addiction is gone.

Baseball is not as fast as basketball, or as jolting as football. What it has going for it is a special tie to the American heart. To feed this, however, the players must show heart in return. And while it’s nice to have a World Series back, as long as people like Albert Belle are the stars of the game — no matter how many home runs they hit — the sport is far from healthy. And that should make it nervous.

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