You are charged with uncovering the "real" Albert Belle, whatever that means. He will not talk to you. This comes as no surprise. Belle is quite adept at blowing off reporters. You are lucky. He does not yell at you, curse your name, threaten you with bodily harm. He simply wanders away when you approach and officially request an interview, as if you do not exist.

So you talk to his teammates. You talk to his manager, his general manager. You try to call his agent, Arn Tellem, who is nearly as difficult to reach as Belle himself. You ask for a list of his charity involvements, and no one seems able to help you. You are interrogated and then rebuffed by his twin brother, Terry, who refuses to grant interviews without assurances that Albert will be portrayed in a manner that he deems appropriate. Albert Sr. and Carrie Belle, the parents, decline all interviews.

You call his college coach at Louisiana State, Skip Bertman, who initially responds to a request to talk about Belle with a weary sigh and the following statement: "I don't think it would do any good for me to talk about Joey {Belle's childhood nickname} at this time," then changes his mind and talks about him anyway. You talk to some college teammates, and a reporter who knew Belle when he was an amiable college freshman, a pleasant college sophomore and a tense, uptight college junior he no longer recognized.

You talk to a player on another major league team, one who has known Belle for several years, and he curses and calls Belle "a black eye on baseball," then quickly backtracks, for no player likes to have his name attached to something that might anger Belle. You call a charity to which Belle has donated substantial time, and a woman there speaks of him with words usually applied to a saint. Three people tell you that Belle is a classic "Jekyll and Hyde" character and suggest he needs counseling. Two people call him "soft-hearted" and speak eloquently in his defense. One person tells you he likes blondes.

You learn that Belle is religious, that he is extremely close to his mother, that he likes to sing, and that he was an Eagle Scout. You learn that he graduated sixth in a class of more than 250 at Huntington High School in Shreveport, La., that his class attendance record was excellent in college and that he has taken classes at Cleveland State University during offseasons. You learn about his extraordinary work ethic and meticulous approach to the game -- for example, you learn that he watched hours and hours of tape of Atlanta's Greg Maddux prior to the World Series, and that he records each at-bat on index cards he keeps in his locker. You also learn that he once physically threatened a sweet-tempered columnist from Cleveland for writing about said index cards.

You make more phone calls, talk to more people, compile more anecdotes. You learn everything there is to know about Albert Belle, and you learn nothing at all. Offensive Behavior

Since Belle and those closest to him volunteer little in the way of public comment, his actions are left to speak for him, and they do not paint an altogether pleasant picture. As a ballplayer, he is one of the most dominant in the game, a 6-foot-2, 210-pound muscle-bound figure who can hit for average as well as for power. He hit 50 homers and 50 doubles in the strike-shortened 1995 season, was considered by many to be the best candidate for American League most valuable player (he lost in the balloting to Boston's Mo Vaughn, almost certainly because of his hostile relationship with reporters, who vote on the award) and is considered a threat to break Roger Maris's 61-home run record should he stay healthy -- and unsuspended -- for an entire season.

Beyond the statistics, though, Belle's biography contains a frightening list of erratic -- and often quite violent -- behavior, starting with his college days at LSU, and rapidly escalating during his professional career. When he does give his rare interviews, Belle tends to have explanations, or at least excuses, for each and every one of these incidents. But many observers -- including acting commissioner Bud Selig, who said recently that Belle "boggles my mind" -- have found his behavior hard to excuse.

Witness his rap sheet: In 1990, Belle was released from a winter ball team in Puerto Rico for failing to hustle. In 1991, he threw a ball into the stands at a heckler, missed, and hit a schoolteacher instead. In both 1992 and 1993, he was suspended for charging the mound. In 1994, he was suspended for seven games for using a corked bat. Last Halloween, two days after the Indians lost the World Series to the Atlanta Braves, he chased trick-or-treaters who had egged his suburban Cleveland home (Belle apparently doesn't hand out Halloween candy) into an open field in his truck, bumping one of the kids with the automobile. He is being sued by the child's family.

Belle already has received the largest fine in baseball history -- $50,000 -- for the now-infamous World Series incident last October, in which Belle let loose an expletive-laden tirade at reporters seated in the Indians' dugout during batting practice -- attacking NBC's Hannah Storm in particular. He is under investigation by the American League for having thrown a baseball at a Sports Illustrated photographer who had angered him by snapping his picture during warmups. The photographer, Tony Tomsic, suffered a small cut on his hand while trying to protect himself from a ball allegedly aimed at his head.

Belle has shown very little remorse for the World Series incident. In a long (and extremely rare) question-and-answer session with the News-Herald of Willoughby, Ohio, last winter, Belle said he simply wished to clear the media from an area he thought should belong to the players. He included this statement in his explanation: "I didn't even know it was Hannah Storm. I thought it was Lesley Visser. I wish it was Lesley Visser, because I don't like her anyway."

John Hart, the Indians' general manager, will maintain that Belle still is the most popular player in Cleveland, and that merchandise bearing his name is more sought-after than that of any other Indian. And, if anything, Belle seems to have shown his greatest concern over his image with the fans, many of whom were upset when he did not show up for the parade the city of Cleveland gave for the Indians after their World Series appearance last season. In an unusual gesture, Belle, with brother Terry's help, wrote a holiday "poem" to the people of Cleveland as a semi-apology for that incident. The poem was published in local newspapers.

"People in Cleveland don't care about his national image," Hart said. "They love the guy."

Hart made the previous statement on the same day that he confirmed to a reporter from the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer that Belle -- a free agent after this season -- had rejected a five-year, $38 million offer that would have made him the second-highest paid player in the game, behind Ken Griffey Jr. That news did not sit well with the Indians, who have since broken off contract talks with Belle, and was not well-received in small-market Cleveland. When the Tomsic incident came to light a few weeks later, the Plain Dealer took an unprecedented stance: In a staff editorial, the newspaper urged that Belle be suspended, and wrote, "if Belle can't behave like a normal human being, then Cleveland and the Indians don't need him." Suffice it to say that Belle's love affair with his adopted home town is in need of some serious marriage counseling, if not headed straight for divorce. All This Pressure'

But what made Belle this way? What sparked all this anger? By all accounts, Belle was a well-behaved child, raised by two educators -- both of his parents taught high school -- in a devoutly Baptist, middle-class home. Carrie Belle was the family's center, and both her sons grew up to be academically, as well as athletically, gifted -- Terry graduating one spot ahead of Albert in their high school class.

The twins were, and still are, exceptionally close, and both went to LSU to play baseball, where they shared a dorm room and entertained their teammates with their tendency to insult each other frequently, albeit with great affection. Joey Belle, as Albert was known then, volunteered his time at local high schools, visited sick kids in the hospital, got along well with the people who lived on his floor. His off-field reputation was pristine.

"We joked and kidded a lot," said Pete Bush, who lived next door to the brothers in college and played with them on the LSU baseball team. "And I saw him do a lot of great things. I tell you what -- I can promise you, the charity work, the other stuff he does now, it isn't for show. It's from the heart."

But several people -- including Bush, now a financial consultant in Baton Rouge, La.; Joe Macaluso, a baseball writer of more than 20 years at the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate; Bertman; and two more of Belle's college teammates -- contend that Belle changed between his sophomore and junior years at LSU. That year, he found himself in the spotlight, chosen in almost every preseason poll to be a top pick in the June draft. The pressure was on, and Belle did not seem to handle it well.

"There was all this pressure, and you could see it get to him," Bush said. "It got to the point where he'd strike out, and guys in the dugout would be looking at each other and saying, I wonder what's he going to hit this time, or what he's going to throw.' "

Belle's most prominent college temper tantrum, the one that cost him the right to join his LSU teammates at the College World Series in the spring of 1987, likely affected his draft status (the Indians did not take him until the second round) and effectively ended his college career. It is also, perhaps, one of his most understandable. While playing against Mississippi State in the Southeastern Conference tournament in Athens, Ga., Belle found himself the target of vicious racial epithets from a Mississippi State fan who perched on a small hill behind Belle's spot in the outfield. Eventually provoked to the breaking point, Belle raced up the hill to confront the fan, and had to be hauled away by his teammates. Later in the game, Bertman pulled Belle after he failed to run out on a long line drive to center -- a hit Belle thought was a homer, but resulted in only a single. Belle never played for LSU again.

"It was his stubbornness, more than anything," Macaluso said. "He was told he had to apologize to his teammates for his behavior. He wouldn't do it. . . . But I remember, he still went to the College World Series. He went and watched Terry play."

When Chad Ogea arrived at LSU, the fall after Belle's departure, the stories about Belle were what he calls "legendary." When he was drafted by the Indians in 1991, he was introduced to a whole new host of Belle stories: the demotions, the clubhouse trashings, the post-strikeout furies.

From his days as a Class A player for Kinston (N.C.) in the Carolina League, where he was managed by Mike Hargrove, now the Indians' major league manager, Belle was considered what baseball people euphemistically call "a project." By 1990, the Indians thought they had isolated a part of the problem, when they sent Belle to the Cleveland Clinic for two months of treatment for alcoholism. Belle emerged from the clinic with a new name -- that's when he asked to be called Albert, his given name, rather than Joey -- and a promise, as he said in a statement, that he was going to start "a new way of life." He no longer drank. But he still had the temper.

"If you look at what's happened to this ballclub, Albert has been a big part of that," Hart said, judiciously, when asked about Belle's impact on the club's image. "He's a part of the Indians family."

And, like most families, the Indians seem to be willing to accept Belle -- with all his flaws and his foibles and his spectacular home runs. For all the unbelievable stories Ogea has heard -- and for all his ability to look at Belle and tell you, unequivocally, on which days you should steer clear of his locker -- he also has a second Albert Belle bible. These are the good stories, the ones he prefers to tell, the ones about the singing spurts in the Indians' clubhouse, or the times when it's 1 a.m. and Belle is dragging his bats to the batting cage to put in more work.

Bush is the same way. He reads the sports news in his office in Baton Rouge now, and sometimes he's astounded by what Belle's done this week, or last. But he'll tell you, right off the bat, that he's seen too much good from Belle to simply condemn him for these latest bursts of public pique. "You see," Bush says, "you have to take both sides of him. I mean, I can't condone some of the things he's done, but I think you have to know him to understand."

But you don't know Belle, and Bush isn't even sure that he does, not really. And you can talk to 30 more people, but you realize that it probably won't make much of a difference. There is only one person who can really explain Albert Belle. And he has nothing to say.

CAPTION: Albert Belle's extraordinary performances on the field (186 homers the previous five seasons) have been overshadowed by his behavior off it.

CAPTION: Albert Belle smashed 50 homers and 50 doubles during '95 season, but didn't win MVP award.

CAPTION: Cleveland's Albert Belle blows a kiss to a heckling fan during an exhibition game in Atlanta.

CAPTION: With help from Kenny Lofton, left, and Carlos Baerga, volatile Albert Belle, center, has boosted the Cleveland Indians to the top of the American League. (Photo ran in an earlier edition)