In the summer of 1997 my family decided to take a little trip north of the border to go see some of our ancestral homeland. We took in all the big sites, Niagara Falls and Toronto, that’s pretty much it for sites up in Mooseland. Part of our reason for visiting Toronto was to see the Boston Red Sox take the maple syrup highway north and whip some Blue Jay tail. At what at the time was the SkyDome, now Rogers Centre, you could actually stay in the stadium as it had a fully functional hotel. Windows in our room overlooked left-centerfield and aside from the hours of electric blowers corralling the trash post game, it was a great stay. Having arrived a night before the Sox came to town we caught the last game of a series with the Chicago White Sox that night. The next morning we traipsed down to the hotel restaurant for breakfast where the waitress remarked that the opposing teams stayed at the hotel as well and if we waited around the front desk we might be able to catch an autograph or two from players checking out. Hurriedly we scampered back to our room to grab a pen and a ball to get signed. We lucked out when returning to the lobby Robin Ventura was sauntering to the elevator. Politely we asked for an autograph and he obliged, ducking phantom Nolan Ryan heaters as he jotted down his mark. With one down we paced back and forth waiting for the next player to arrive when the jack pot arrived in Frank Thomas. A massive man towering over a tiny 10 year old freckled sprite he knowingly walked right up grabbed the ball and signed away. He couldn’t had been nicer as he handed it back and said “have a nice day kid”. Wow, could that had been any sweeter with such a pillar of the game giving me his autograph in such a pleasant exchange. Well things soured pretty fast as Albert Belle came charging to the front desk.
In professional sports, much like the movies or professional wrestling, there are good guys (Derek Jeter, David Eckstein, Cal Ripken Jr) and there are bad guys, and then there is Albert Belle. No one in professional sports has ever quite embraced the role of heel like Albert Belle. In his tenure in the league with the Indians, White Sox, and Orioles, he bristled both teammates, sports writers, and team officials equally. Reports of rage and destruction followed Belle wherever he went, most notably having smashed teammate Kenny Lofton’s boombox after a bad at-bat and incurring a yearly $10,000 bill from teams for clubhouse destruction. He further cemented his bad boy legacy when he not only got caught using a corked bat, but then proceeded to have a teammate attempt to steal it from the umpires room by climbing through ceiling tiles.
Now knowing full well that he had a bit of a temper from his past tirades when on the Indians, myself, my brother and a handful of other children awaiting their idols in the lobby kept our distance while he went about completing check out. Visibly irritated he kept muttering, not so under his breath, “these fucking kids, get these fucking kids away from me”. The woman at the desk did her best to try to alleviate a quickly escalating temper tantrum, having a bell hop move us further away from Mr. Belle and assuring him that he wouldn’t be bothered. This did little to ease the boiling maniac and having completed his check out he whirled around, stormed over in our direction, and proceeded to berate us “little punks who didn’t deserve his autograph” and demand our expulsion from the establishment. As he continued to scream at us, the front desk steward came over and joined in at yelling at us to placate Mr. Belle and proceeded to throw us out of the hotel. Stuck outside in the Canadian summer heat, which is actually quite lovely very tempered, my brother and I made numerous attempts to re-enter the revolving door into the hotel only to be shooed right back out on every attempt and labeled as “street children”. It wasn’t until my mother, who had gone back to our room to get another ball, came back and found her children outside being yelled at by a hotel employee were we allowed back in. Informing the woman that we were indeed hotel guests and should never be treated this way as paying guests, let alone children, she quickly cowered apologetically and retreated back into the depths of the coat check room. It was with that kind Canadian hospitality that always endears me to trips across the border to hang out with my buddy Albert.