On the night of September 26, 1997, the Atlanta Braves and New York Mets were playing out the dregs of the regular season before a small crowd at Shea Stadium. But if part of baseball’s appeal is that any trip to the ballpark can yield historic accomplishments, the partisans of New York were in for a treat.
In the seventh inning, Atlanta shortstop Rafael Belliard turned on a fastball from Mets lefty Brian Bohanon and hooked it over the left-field wall for a game-tying home run. The Braves dugout exploded, with many of Atlanta’s biggest stars grinning like Little Leaguers as Belliard circled the bases and returned to the dugout amid an atmosphere of pandemonium. The celebration seemed to be of the type reserved for a pennant clincher or a ninth-inning grand slam. It was a long time coming.
“I’ve been looking for that for 10 years,” Belliard exclaimed after the game. “Finally, I get it tonight. I’m dreaming.”1
Rafael Belliard, 5-foot-6 shortstop extraordinaire, had hit his only previous big-league home run on May 5, 1987. After 10½ years and 1,869 major-league at-bats, Belliard finally managed his second — and final — big-league home run.
Belliard, as much as anyone, typified the good field/no hit shortstops who proliferated in the big leagues during his reign from the early 1980s to the late 1990s. He earned his way into the major leagues with his foot speed and fielding prowess and stayed there despite his lack of skill on offense, particularly power.
Belliard may be best remembered today for his 10½-year homerless drought. But instead of being memorialized as a ballplayer for what his career didn’t include, Belliard could as easily be remembered for his decade and a half in the major leagues, for his slick glove, solid bunting, and for being a part of a Braves team that allowed him to appear in four World Series, and even star in one.
And then every 10 years or so, he’d add a home run.
Rafael Leonidas Belliard Mattias was born on October 24, 1961, in Puerto Nuevo, Dominican Republic. Like many boys his age, Belliard spent a large part of his childhood refining his baseball skills, which in his case were largely defensive. “In Dominica, we play all year long, no matter where,” he reflected in 1991. “There you practiced every day like spring training. You have like one month off, then you’re back in practice.”2
When Belliard was 17, he took a bus trip to Santo Domingo, where he tried out for a Dominican military team. When his slick fielding earned him a spot on the squad, his compensation was roughly $80 per month.3 Belliard’s big break likely was the 1979 Pan American Games, where his Dominican squad finished second, losing only to champion Cuba. Scouts may have watched the games to observe a lackluster 5-3 US squad, which failed to medal, but they couldn’t fail to observe the pint-sized Dominican shortstop who not only caught everything hit to him, but managed to bat .375 in the eight games played.
Pittsburgh scout Pablo Cruz urged the Pirates to sign Belliard. When some questioned Cruz about the infielder’s diminutive size, Cruz told them “not to worry about balls hit over his head, because there wouldn’t be many hit through his legs.”4 Cruz also told other Pirates executives, “He has winning blood.”5
Belliard signed with Pittsburgh in 1980, and that winning blood didn’t manifest itself right away. In the summer of 1980, in 20 games split between the Gulf Coast League and the Pirates’ South Atlantic League farm team in Shelby, he hit .182. He split time between second base, third base, and shortstop, and while his defensive skills were obvious, so were the limitations of his game. Few pegged Belliard as a long-term major leaguer.
The story essentially remained the same in 1981, when Pittsburgh made Belliard the everyday shortstop for the Class-A Alexandria Dukes. Belliard, who was just 19, played in 127 games and showed many of the skills that would define his career. He was part of 73 double plays at shortstop, which nearly led his league, had a dozen sacrifice bunts, and stole 42 bases. He also posted a batting line of .216/.264/.250 and fanned 92 times.
For many players, a promising career could have ended right there. But Belliard’s destiny was shaped by the acts of the parent club, who were about to trade 1981 shortstop Tim Foli to the California Angels. Pittsburgh then planned to hand the everyday job to Dale Berra. The son of Yankee Hall of Famer Yogi Berra, Dale was a Pittsburgh first-round draft choice and had filled a utility role with the team for several seasons. He not only had the pedigree to be an everyday big leaguer, he had some of the necessary skills, but he struggled with consistency. In 1982 Berra would be the Pittsburgh shortstop, but he would need a backup, particularly somebody strong with the glove.
Meanwhile, Rafael Belliard spent most of the 1982 season with Double-A Buffalo. The starting job at shortstop there belonged to highly touted prospect Gregory Pastors. Pastors hit .193, and Belliard significantly outplayed him, batting .274 in 124 at-bats and posting a higher fielding percentage. Accordingly, on September 6, the Pirates called Belliard to the major leagues. He played in nine games, mostly as a pinch-runner and defensive replacement. He experienced his first major-league at-bat on September 25, pinch-hitting a single off Montreal’s Scott Sanderson before stealing second base and scoring a run. Belliard ended the season 1-for-2 at the plate and handled four chances flawlessly in the field.
Belliard spent the next three seasons bouncing between the minor leagues, brief stints in Pittsburgh, and on one occasion, a lengthy trip to the disabled list. Most of 1983 was spent in Double-A Lynn (where he hit .262 in 431 at-bats). Most of 1984 was spent on the disabled list after Belliard fractured his left fibula on a bad landing from a difficult infield throw in Chicago. If there is any karma bounceback, surely it was 1985, when Belliard spent most of the season in Triple-A Hawaii (where he hit .246 in 341 at-bats). Altogether Belliard played in 41 big-league games from 1983 to 1985. He was 9-for-43 at the plate during those seasons.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh had continued to rely on Dale Berra at shortstop, despite declining offensive returns and three consecutive 30-error seasons. Berra’s performance issues may be somewhat explained by his appearance in the Pittsburgh Drug Trials of 1985. After the 1984 season, the Pirates dealt Berra to the Yankees, where his father was the manager. Among the players they gained in return was Tim Foli. A March 1985 item in The Sporting News indicated that Belliard might split time with Foli,6 but the latter retired after hitting .189 in 37 at-bats in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates went with Sam Khalifa at shortstop in 1985. He promptly hit .238 and made 16 errors, and after Pittsburgh went 57-104, manager Chuck Tanner was sent packing, to be followed by a career minor leaguer named Jim Leyland. It was one of the most fortunate moments of Rafael Belliard’s career.
In the spring of 1986, Belliard was trying to play his way into a crowded shortstop rotation in Pittsburgh. The Pirates returned starter Khalifa and veteran Johnnie LeMaster. But Belliard made his mark. The Pirates released LeMaster before Opening Day, with Leyland telling a reporter, “Belliard played his way on the club. He has more versatility than LeMaster.”7
Belliard spent his first full season in the big leagues under Leyland, who valued both youth and defense. As Belliard continued to improve, Khalifa struggled, and was ultimately sent down to the minors. The Pirates signed veteran U L Washington, but gave the majority of time at shortstop to Belliard. Rafael even provided some offensive punch early in the season, going 15-for-33 during one streak, and hitting .248 in the first half of the season, with 23 RBIs and 10 stolen bases.
He played in 117 games in 1986, mostly at shortstop, although he occasionally filled in at second base. His defense continued to be a highlight, as he finished fourth in the NL in range factor per nine innings as a shortstop, and fifth in the league in total zone runs among shortstops. Offensively, Belliard’s 11 sacrifices were seventh most in the National League. That said, his .233/.298/.262 offensive line ensured that Belliard would continue to split time with more offensively capable middle infielders.
The 1987 season was something of a step back for Belliard. In spring training, Pirates GM Syd Thrift told a reporter, “You really need two (shortstops).”8 Concern over Belliard’s physical durability and his shy, quiet nature were cited as evidence in favor of the Pirates’ search for another shortstop.9 For the first half of the season, the concerns seemed unfounded. Belliard launched his first career home run on May 5, a three-run blast off the Padres’ Eric Show. While Belliard had some struggles, Leyland spoke out in his favor, telling reporters that while Belliard was “not a .300 hitter,” he also was “not a .200 hitter, either.”10 Leyland drew parallels between Belliard’s defensive skills and those of Baltimore shortstop Mark Belanger, ultimately telling the media, “If the lineup just does what they can do, we feel we can play Belliard at shortstop and not worry about it.”11 It didn’t work out that way in 1987.
Belliard was hitting .187 on July 8, when he was demoted to Double-A Harrisburg. He hit .338 there, and was recalled by the Pirates on August 16. Belliard promptly went 6-for-10 before ending his season by breaking his leg on August 26 while completing a double play against the Reds. The brief hot streak did allow Belliard to finish the season at .207, but he played in only 81 games, batting 203 times to post his .207/.286/.271 offensive line.
Over the next three years in Pittsburgh, the same basic pattern followed. The Pirates — particularly Leyland — appreciated Belliard’s smooth glove and versatility. (Belliard even played a few games at third base for the Pirates in 1989 and 1990.) However, he simply didn’t hit enough to be more than a part-time player. In 1988 Belliard played in 122 games, but was part of a three-headed Pittsburgh shortstop group (along with Felix Fermin and Al Pedrique) that combined to have more errors (20) than RBIs (17). Belliard played less in 1989 (67 games, 154 at-bats) and 1990 (47 games, 54 at-bats). Pittsburgh was increasingly playing shortstop Jay Bell at the position, and in 1990 Belliard’s future was again in jeopardy after he was left off the Pirates’ postseason roster when the team reached the 1990 NLCS.
In December 1990, a free agent, Belliard signed a two-year, $800,000 contract with the last-place Atlanta Braves. Braves GM John Schuerholz acted on some rave reviews from those close to Belliard. Former Pirate Sid Bream, who would play with Belliard in Atlanta, told Schuerholz, “He’s as good a shortstop as Ozzie Smith.”12
Veteran manager Bobby Cox used Belliard in tandem with good-hit, no-field shortstop Jeff Blauser, and the young Atlanta pitching staff, which included John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and Steve Avery, provided many leads that justified keeping the light-hitting Belliard in games for defensive purposes. But Cox saw Belliard as his everyday shortstop, and told Rafael so. “I told him I hadn’t really done that,” recalled Belliard.13
Belliard played in 149 games in 1991, and batted 353 times, both career highs. He didn’t lack for production, batting a career-best .249 and having some genuinely impressive hot streaks at the plate. On May 7 and 8, in a home series against the Cardinals, Belliard had five hits, including three doubles and a triple, to go with eight RBIs in the two games. Meanwhile, Belliard continued to impress Cox with his glove work. Late in the season, the skipper said, “Defense is a main part of the reason we are where we are and those two guys on the left side of our infield [Belliard and third baseman Terry Pendleton] are as good as there is.”14
When Atlanta played its way to a division title on the last weekend of the season, Belliard found himself taking on some familiar faces in his first playoff appearance. The Braves faced the Pirates in a seven-game NLCS, and Belliard started all seven games. He went 4-for-19 in the series, but also helped Braves pitchers rack up three shutouts over Pittsburgh, the final a 4-0 win in Game Seven.
From there, Belliard had a World Series to remember in the Braves’ seven-game loss to the Twins. He again started every game, and went 6-for-16 at the plate, knocking in four runs. He also went errorless in 29 defensive chances, including four double plays, two of which helped preserve Game Seven as a scoreless tie until the 10th inning, when Minnesota broke the Braves’ hearts. Despite the tough loss, Belliard had experienced his best season as a big leaguer and finished it with a superb World Series. “I knew I was playing for something important,” Belliard said a quarter-century later, also admitting, “Hey, it did (surprise) me.”15
In 1992 Belliard and the Braves played their way back to the Series again. This time, Rafael played in 144 games, earning 285 at-bats. But he hit only .211, and thus found himself filling in for defensive purposes by the time of the playoffs, batting once in the NLCS and contributing only a sacrifice bunt in the World Series against the Blue Jays. Still, observers cited Belliard for making “a sizeable contribution to the Braves’ 1991 National League pennant” and being “just as important in 1992.”16
From there, Belliard would serve Atlanta only as a reserve. Blauser had come into his own as an offensive threat, and while Rafael still appeared for defensive purposes at shortstop or occasionally at second base, he never again eclipsed 180 at-bats in a season.
The remaining highlight of Belliard’s career was the 1995 season, when he did take those 180 at-bats, playing in 75 games for Atlanta, and finally winning the World Series that had eluded the squad. Belliard batted .222 in 1995, but Jeff Blauser was injured down the stretch run and Belliard again found himself an everyday shortstop in the World Series.
Belliard went 0-for-16 at the plate in the Series, but found ways to contribute, even during a hitting slump. His successful seventh-inning squeeze bunt in Game One was the winning margin of the Braves’ 3-2 win over the Indians. He remained on the field to the end of the clinching Game Six, joining the dogpile on the pitching mound when Mark Wohlers retired the final batter of the Braves’ title run.
From there, age and the continued improvement of other Braves shortstops spelled the gradual decline of Belliard’s big-league career. He did manage his elusive second career home run in late 1997, but the following spring, after starting the season 5-for-20 and playing in seven of the Braves’ first eight games, Belliard tore his left quadriceps muscle.17 While he did rehabilitate himself from the injury, and the Braves had him on postseason standby if he was needed, Belliard never played in another major-league game after April 9, 1998.
In bits and pieces of 17 seasons in major-league baseball, Belliard finished his career as a .221 hitter. His 508 career hits included only two home runs, and he knocked in 142 total runs. Belliard’s career OPS+ of 46 is a testimony to his struggles at bat, but he was a career .974 fielder at shortstop, and he ranks among the top 75 shortstops in total zone runs (since the stat can be tracked, which dates back to 1953).
Belliard transitioned from playing to coaching, spending several years with Atlanta as a roving minor-league instructor and then coaching for the Tigers.18 During the offseason before 2013, Belliard was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but he underwent surgery with positive results.19 In 2014 Belliard went to work for the Kansas City Royals, first as a special assistant to the general manager, and then, starting in 2015, as a roving infield coordinator. When not on the road, he lives in Boca Raton, Florida, with his wife of over three decades, Leonora. They have a son and two grandchildren.
While comic foibles of Belliard’s decade-long chase after his second home run might be the biggest memory that casual fans have of his career, his four decades in Organized Baseball point to the incredible success of the undersized glove man. Perhaps instead of Belliard’s inability to hit the long ball, future fans should know of his defensive skills, his positive attitude throughout his career’s many twists and turns, and his surprising postseason heroics.
Last revised: February 12, 2021
1 Buster Olney, “It’s No Small Feat as Braves’ Belliard Hits a Rare Homer,” New York Times, September 27, 1997.
2 C. Ron Allen, “Touching Bases: Series Star for Braves Offers to Help Abused and Abandoned Children’s Home in Boca,” South Florida Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale), November 13, 1991.
3 Steve Wulf, “Standing Tall at Short,” Sports Illustrated, February 9, 1987. Interestingly, Sports Illustrated said it was a Navy team, while the Atlanta Journal-Constitution referred to it as an Army squad in a September 16, 2016, profile of Belliard, which is cited below.
4 Charles Feeney, “Belliard Has the Right Bloodlines,” The Sporting News, June 30, 1986: 21.
6 Charles Feeney, “Foli May Share Short with Belliard,” The Sporting News, March 25, 1985: 31.
7 Charles Feeney, “Pirates’ Accent on Youth Added Khalifa, Belliard,” The Sporting News, April 21, 1986: 26.
8 The Sporting News, February 16, 1987: 34.
10 Bob Hertzel, “He’s Still a Glove Man,” The Sporting News, May 25, 1987: 15.
12 Joel Bierig and Bruce Levine, “Brave New World,” The Sporting News, May 27, 1991: 10.
13 I.J. Rosenberg, “Belliard Provided Defense, Clutch Play During Braves’ Run,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, September 16, 2016.
14 Ross Newhan, “In Defense, Pendleton, Belliard are Fallible,” Los Angeles Times, September 22, 1991.
15 Rosenberg, “Belliard Provided Defense.”
16 Dave Nightengale, “Make a Deal, Face the Wheel,” The Sporting News, November 23, 1992: 41.
17 The Sporting News, April 20, 1998: 38.
18 Rosenberg, “Belliard Provided Defense.”
19 Jason Beck, “Following surgery, Belliard grateful for quick response,” MLB.com, February 23, 2013, mlb.com/news/following-surgery-belliard-grateful-for-quick-response/c-41910186.