Belliard provided defense, clutch play during Braves’ run

Some 25 years ago, the Braves were only a few weeks away from winning their first of 14 straight division titles.

Their shortstop wasn’t a household name, but his glove was arguably as important as both Terry Pendleton’s bat and Tom Glavine’s arm.

Rafael Belliard played in 149 regular-season games in 1991, giving the Braves consistency at a position that had been a problem for years. He started all 14 games in the NLCS and World Series.

Never known for his bat, he hit .375 and knocked in four runs in one of the most memorable Fall Classics ever against the Minnesota Twins, a worst-to-first season that always will be cherished by Braves fans.

But it was never easy for Belliard, standing only 5-foot-6 and 160 pounds.

He was born in Pueblo Nuevo, Dominican Republic, and didn’t go to high school, instead joining the Dominican Army, where he played on its baseball team. His quick hands and strong arm were noticed by major league scouts, and at 18, he was signed by Pittsburgh.

It was apparent that Belliard would be a defensive specialist, and while he made his major league debut in September 1982, he bounced around the minors until 1986, when he played in 117 games for Pittsburgh.

He hit his first and only home run as a Pirate the next season and would remain with the club until 1990.

That winter, the Braves brought in general manager John Schuerholz, who quickly signed big-name free agents Pendleton and Sid Bream. Without much fanfare, Belliard signed a two-year deal for $900,000 on Dec. 18.

The Braves went to spring training with Andres Thomas, Jeff Blauser and Belliard, but Thomas was cut a few weeks into camp, Blauser struggled and the job went to Belliard.

He kept it for two years before Blauser started producing and hit over .300 in 1993, though Belliard always was used as a defensive replacement. In 1995, he started all six World Series games in what would be Atlanta’s first and only world championship.

Belliard hit one more home run. That came in New York in 1997, giving him 1,869 at-bats between his two homers.

He retired after the next season, playing in 1,185 games and making 76 errors for a lifetime .974 fielding percentage.

Belliard played in 44 postseason games with the Braves.

He played in the independent Northern League the next season, spent five years as a roving minor league fielding instructor for the Braves and was a coach for the Detroit Tigers for eight years until 2013.

Where he lives: Now 54, Belliard lives in Boca Raton, Fla., with Leonora, his wife of 31 years. He has one son, Kevin, and two grandchildren.

What he does: Belliard is an assistant to the general manager and roving infield instructor for the Kansas City Royals.

On signing with the Braves: “I had about eight teams that wanted my services. The Braves and Toronto were more aggressive teams and the Braves gave me two years. And I got some bonus from them. I also wanted to stay in the National League.’’

On winning the starting job in 1991: “I remember Bobby (Cox) coming into the clubhouse and telling me I was going to be his everyday shortstop. I told him I really hadn’t done that, but I think I started 74 of the first 75 games. He then gave me a little break. Then after a couple of years, Blauser began to hit and it was a really good combination, the two of us.’’

On his big World Series against the Twins: “I know it surprised people, but I had been playing every day and the end of the regular season was like a playoff, battling with the Dodgers. I also knew I was playing for something important. Hey, it did surprise me.’’

On beating the Indians in 1995: “I don’t think I came off the field in that series. But what it came down to was we had such good pitching in those six games.’’

On being a defensive specialist: “It’s funny, but I got better with the Braves because Bobby Cox would catch balls at first base when they were hitting me grounders, and Bobby had bad knees, so I knew I had to make perfect throws. Also, (coach) Jimy Williams would go out every day with me and help me with my balance. My defense was unbelievable sometimes.’’

On his career with the Braves: “Baseball has changed. Back then it was pitching and playing defense. We played as a team and it was such a great experience. Today, I think there are guys that play to put numbers on the board and make money. But last year at Kansas City, we played a lot like we did with the Braves. We played as a team and now I have a ring from winning it all from both leagues.’’

On his two major league homers: “(Laughing) Hey, I did hit one every 10 years.”

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