Albert Belle came back to baseball last week making nice. This
was unexpected. This was news. Word spun through the Baltimore
Orioles' spring training camp in Fort Lauderdale: Albert
reported two days early, Albert is signing autographs, Albert,
by god, is talking to the press. Members of the Baltimore brass,
understanding that their careers and the franchise's quaint,
old-time aura are now lashed to a stick of dynamite, muttered a
private prayer of thanks and floated the trial balloon of the
spring. What's past is past. Albert has grown up. Albert has
"Very cooperative," says newly minted general manager Frank Wren.
"I couldn't ask him to be any better than he's been."
"People have a right to mature," says Orioles manager Ray Miller.
"I'm ecstatic to have him here."
Will it last? Who knows? When the Orioles made Belle the
highest-paid player in club history on Dec. 1, signing him to a
five-year, $65 million contract with a limited no-trade clause,
they landed the game's most dependable and unpredictable talent.
That isn't the contradiction it seems. On the field Belle's
dedication and uncanny ability to focus have made him the most
feared hitter in baseball. No one--not even Mark McGwire or Ken
Griffey Jr.--has equaled Belle's 313 home runs, 979 RBIs and 636
extra-base hits during the last eight seasons. In 1998, playing
his home games for the Chicago White Sox at pitcher-friendly
Comiskey Park, Belle hit 49 homers, one short of his career
high, achieved with the Cleveland Indians in '95. His statistics
after last year's All-Star Game alone were astounding: a .387
average, 31 homers, 86 RBIs and an .816 slugging percentage. One
can't help but wonder what his numbers will be in Camden Yards,
a slugger's paradise.
"His ability in our park?" muses Baltimore pitcher Mike Mussina.
"I'm not saying he's going to hit 55 to 60 homers, but I'm not
saying he won't. Look at last year: Sometimes you get hot for a
stretch, and every ball you hit on the barrel ends up being a
home run. He has the ability to get on that kind of run."
Off the field, of course, Belle's glowering and combustible
personality has made him an infamous embodiment of the athlete
as thug, baseball's most notorious villain. While Baltimore's
Cal Ripken Jr. spent the 1995 off-season basking in the
afterglow of breaking Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record,
Belle was embellishing his record of hostility toward media and
fans by trying to run down some Halloween pranksters with his
truck. While McGwire chased baseball's home run record last
July, Belle found himself dogged by charges--later dropped--of
hitting a girlfriend and ripping her phone out of the wall when
she tried to call for help. Belle is baseball's anti-Cal, and
now, in the strangest of twists, he is Baltimore's too.
Ripken himself fails to find this odd. "I really don't get
involved in perceptions," Ripken says. "We're all different, and
that's what makes it interesting. Being judged on the things
beyond what you do as a baseball player--sometimes I don't think
that's necessarily right. Maybe you don't have the full story.
When I come out here, I look at Albert as a teammate, I look at
him as a baseball player. I look at how he comes to bat and how
he approaches his job. He's a gamer. He's someone you really
appreciate when you're on his team. He's a 50-homer guy, a
140-RBI guy. He wants to play every day. Who wouldn't want that?
I have a lot of respect for him, playing against him and
watching how he goes about his job. I'm happy I'm his teammate."
If that sounds like a legend beginning to inch his way to the
side, it is. Last year, as usual, Ripken was the Orioles' most
prominent figure, but he presided over a clubhouse in disarray
and a season that Miller describes as "very turmoilish."
Translation: a disaster. Injuries to three starters--Mussina,
Scott Kamienecki and Jimmy Key--devastated Baltimore's rotation,
and as the team with baseball's highest payroll (owner Peter
Angelos shelled out more than $74 million) underwhelmed opponent
after opponent, player cliques hardened and respect for Miller
began to dissolve. Among the preseason favorites to make the
playoffs, Baltimore saw most of its 14 potential free agents
perform with little gusto or unity, and the club finished four
games under .500 and 35 games behind the New York Yankees in the
American League East. When the 38-year-old Ripken sat out the
final home game to end his streak at 2,632 consecutive games,
everyone knew it was the beginning of his end.
In sports only results command respect, and there's no ignoring
the fact that at 32 Belle is in his prime; his 152 RBIs last year
were 91 more than Ripken drove in. Never mind that, with a streak
of 334 consecutive games, Belle has replaced Ripken as baseball's
iron man. He is, suddenly, Baltimore's dominant presence. For
better or worse, it is now his team.
Right now, anyway, the Orioles are saying that Belle is just
what they need. Miller says he asked "probably 50" of Belle's
former teammates and two of his former managers--Cleveland's
Mike Hargrove and Chicago's Jerry Manuel--about him, "and not
one guy said a bad word. They said he was a great teammate and
plays hard." Declared centerfielder Brady Anderson, "As great as
he is? I don't care what he does [off the field]."
Belle and Baltimore almost didn't connect. The team's first
choice in the free-agent market was St. Louis Cardinals
outfielder Brian Jordan (who signed with the Atlanta Braves),
and Yankees general manager Brian Cashman says that Belle had
agreed to a deal with New York before changing his mind 15
minutes later. The acquisition of Belle, fully backed by Angelos
(who broke his own rule against paying a player more than $10
million a season), was the key to Wren's bid to put a new face
on the old Orioles. Seven of those 14 free agents were not
re-signed, including two All-Stars, the temperamental second
baseman Roberto Alomar and the reserved first baseman Rafael
Palmeiro. In the first five days of December, Wren traded for
Gold Glove backstop Charles Johnson (filling a defensive void
that had plagued the team for years) and acquired what special
assistant Syd Thrift calls "different types": mercurial second
baseman Delino DeShields, the manically intense (if past his
prime) first baseman Will Clark and Belle, who at the news
conference to announce his signing said, "Once I step on the
ball field, it's a war zone out there."
No one considered that to be hyperbole. Belle's intimidating
stare at opposing pitchers and his take-no-prisoners attitude
toward foes have earned him much respect but few friends. He has
been suspended six times in his career for, among other things,
charging the mound (twice), using a corked bat and leveling an
infielder with a forearm shiver. Belle isn't shy about saying he
expects his combative attitude to rub off on his new teammates.
"That's the only way I know how to play," he says. "We're going
to go all out. I know Will Clark has his intensity level.
Hopefully it'll rub off on these guys, bring about a different
scenario than last year. With us coming over, the new guys,
there's definitely going to be a change."
The Baltimore organization has always prided itself on being
about more than just results. There was a right way and a wrong
way to play baseball, a style known as the Oriole Way, and its
emphasis on sound fundamentals discouraged individual flash and
controversy as effectively as it created winners. The Orioles'
reputation as a bastion of quality--the L.L. Bean of
baseball--has survived Reggie Jackson, free-agent defections and
a farm system that hasn't produced an every-day impact player
since Ripken became a regular in 1982. Belle will provide its
"The Orioles are a special franchise, very community oriented,
and the people support it better than probably any city in
baseball," Wren says. "There are things that go along with that.
We explained that to Albert, and Albert was very receptive. He
has been outstanding." In January he made his first public
appearance as an Oriole at the club's FanFest in Baltimore and
fulfilled his obligation to sign autographs for 90 minutes.
Then, after learning that he still had a few hours before his
flight back to Chicago, Belle turned down a chance to grab a
meal and said, "Why don't I sign more autographs?" He returned
to his seat and signed for another 45 minutes. "Everybody
started cheering when they saw him," says Orioles media
relations director John Maroon.
This is the Albert that Baltimore was hoping for when it signed
him, an Albert who reaches out. During the first week of spring
training Belle made it a habit to sign autographs every day
after workouts; said he would, if asked, gladly shift from
leftfield (where B.J. Surhoff is the incumbent) to right; and
said he would be willing to surrender his usual cleanup spot to
bat third. (He probably will remain at cleanup.) Last Thursday,
in his second session with reporters, he even revealed flashes
of humor. About Camden Yards, Belle quipped, "I've been treated
there just like I've been treated everywhere else: You got
everybody booing for you. I take that as a compliment." Then he
went on to tell a story about a fan who was annoying him two
years ago in Chicago. "He told me I was one hot dog away from
being Cecil Fielder," Belle said. "I got the biggest laugh out
Such jocularity seemed strange coming from Belle, whose
profanity-laced tirades have become lore among reporters and who
once fired one ball at a fan and another at a photographer for
trying to take his picture. This is a man who, though his war
with fans and media cooled during his two years in Chicago,
still found his reputation sullied by that domestic battery
charge last summer. The fact that Belle pressed harassment
charges against the woman, Stephanie Bugusky, for allegedly
phoning him more than 20 times the day after a judge extended a
restraining order against him and that all charges involving
both of them were eventually dropped did little to improve his
hot-tempered image. "I can't control that anymore," Belle says.
"I'm not going to try to. But when you win a lot more games than
you lose, your image seems to get better. When you hit tons of
home runs, drive in tons of runs, your image gets better."
Whether Belle's troubles have taught him anything besides the
basics of public relations, however, remains in question. Belle
still refuses to let photographers take his picture in or around
the batting cage because, as Maroon says, "it makes him nervous,"
and he rails at them when they don't abide by his wishes. He
still can snap at a fan when an autograph is requested during a
workout. When asked if, given the chance, he would change
anything he did in the past, Belle shakes his head and says no.
Then he turns to look his questioner dead in the eye. "No," he
But last Thursday, after he smashed two batting practice home
runs, took in the applause from some 200 fans at Fort Lauderdale
Stadium and sat for yet another interview, Belle walked out to
the front gate of the complex. A line of 70 people waited for
him with balls and hats and cards. No other players were there.
He stopped and dipped his head and began to sign, exchanging
words with some of the people, scribbling but not rushing, in
the way that Ripken made famous. The line inched forward like a
great snake. Belle made no move to leave. After 20 minutes the
line exhausted itself, and he turned to go. "Thanks, Albert!"
yelled one woman, then others chimed in with "Thanks!" and "Have
a great year!"
With his back to the crowd, Belle waved his hand above his
shoulder and kept walking. It was a nice moment, the end of
spring training's first day, the air going cool in a soft
tropical light. You could envision such a scene repeating itself
throughout the Florida days and the Baltimore summer, a whole
season of redemptive moments that just might add up to a new
man. You could also see those good intentions going up in smoke.
Albert Belle's torrid hitting in the second half of last season
ranked among the top five post-All-Star Game performances since
1975 in each of the Triple Crown categories.
George Brett, Royals 1980 .421
Larry Walker, Rockies 1998 .402
Wade Boggs, Red Sox 1985 .395
George Brett, Royals 1990 .388
Albert Belle, White Sox 1998 .387
Albert Belle, Indians 1995 36
Mark McGwire, Cardinals 1998 33
Sammy Sosa, Cubs 1998 33
Albert Belle, White Sox 1998 31
Jay Buhner, Mariners 1995 29
Albert Belle, White Sox 1998 86
Ken Caminiti, Padres 1996 81
Dante Bichette, Rockies 1995 80
Ken Griffey Jr., Mariners 1996 80
Jeff Kent, Giants 1998 79
SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU