Cheering Belle's big season is tough sell

ON BASEBALL

September 20, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

While the baseball world celebrates the unprecedented home run duel between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, Chicago White Sox outfielder Albert Belle is putting together another amazing second half and another outstanding season.

And it is going all but unnoticed.

Belle has set club records for home runs (46) and RBIs (139) on the way to what might be the best all-around offensive season in the American League, but he has created such an unlikeable persona -- so much in contrast to the affable Sosa across town -- that he has become easy to ignore.

"This is going to be one of the top seasons in White Sox history, and it's not being picked up on nationally or locally," twin brother and business manager Terry Belle told the Chicago Tribune last week.

"But that's OK, because I think people in the baseball circles know. And that's what counts."

That might be true. Everyone recognizes that Belle is a huge talent, but he might find out this winter that a lot of people in baseball circles aren't willing to overlook his churlish behavior just because he can hit a baseball so well.

Belle is expected to exercise an out clause in his contract that gives him a 30-day window to test the free-agent market if the White Sox don't raise his salary by an average of $1.4 million over the final three years of his contract.

The original deal called for Belle to gain that option if three other players surpassed his average annual salary of $10 million. It kicked in when Gary Sheffield received a $7.5 million bonus from the Florida Marlins and Los Angeles Dodgers to approve the deal that sent him and several other players to Los Angeles for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile.

If the White Sox decline to give him a raise, Angry Albert really has nothing to lose by testing the market.

"As of right now, I'm not going anywhere," Belle said recently, "but you never know what will happen after the season. Certain payrolls could take on big-money guys."

Trouble is, most big-money teams also are big on public relations, because they want that big money to keep coming through the turnstiles. Belle has become a caricature of the spoiled, overpaid ballplayer who turned off fans during baseball's labor troubles, and he continues to cling defiantly to his antisocial image.

The White Sox have the choice of giving him another $4.2 million over the next three years or take the chance of losing him -- and saving about $30 million.

It seems like they have the easier decision.

And another thing

If Belle stays in Chicago, he also would like to see the White Sox move the fences in at Comiskey Park to give him a better chance of competing in baseball's post-expansion home run frenzy. He lobbied for that during the past off-season, but the dimensions remained unchanged.

"We believe if they brought those fences in to the warning track, he would have 14 more homers," Terry Belle said. "They're not going to do it, but I believe that's how they'd get the 40,000 [crowds] back."

Yeah, baseball really needed somebody like Belle to turn the feel-good story of the year into a funeral march.

Sammy for MVP

No matter what happens in the final week of the home run race, Sosa should be elected the National League's Most Valuable Player. He has exceeded McGwire's run-production numbers -- albeit with quite a few more at-bats -- and he has done so in the heat of a pennant race.

Sosa got an endorsement from a respected source during the Cubs' recent four-game series against the San Diego Padres.

"If I had a vote, it would go to Sammy," future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn said recently.

"People in Chicago must think Sammy is the MVP because of how he's helped his team, and people in St. Louis are for McGwire because he carried the game for quite a while. I saw the ballot for MVP, and there are five things to consider. But No. 1 is value to his club. Really, that would have to be Sosa, wouldn't it?"

Pinstripe problem

The New York Yankees still figure to be the favorite to represent the American League in the World Series, but the troubling performance of starter Andy Pettitte has left them looking vulnerable to a postseason upset.

Pettitte has struggled badly through his last six starts, going 2-4 with a 7.25 ERA -- badly enough to endanger his place in the postseason rotation.

Manager Joe Torre still lists Pettitte as his No. 3 playoff starter, but said recently that he wants to see the young left-hander "get comfortable" in his last couple of starts.

There has been speculation that Pettitte's arm is wearing down because of his heavy use of a cut fastball, but it seems more likely that he is just going through a slump. The Yankees have to hope he comes out of it before they open the Division Series.

Wood proceeds cautiously

Cubs phenom Kerry Wood probably will test his strained elbow again today and could return to the club's starting rotation for one more regular-season start on Tuesday or Wednesday in Milwaukee, but he says that he will take no chances with his valuable arm.

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