Luring Belle shows O's have no plan

November 26, 1998|By Ken Rosenthal

Who would wear No. 8?

Cal or Albert? Albert or Cal?

Hey, we're talking about a changing of the guard, right? The Cal Ripken Era, flowing seamlessly into the Albert Belle Era.

Ripken can hand Belle a No. 8 jersey at the news conference, and then the $13 million man can announce his plans to become Baltimore's leading citizen.

Preposterous? Of course, it's preposterous. The whole idea is preposterous. But desperate times call for desperate measures, and the locals are clearly desperate now.

Albert Belle, a $13 million Oriole.

Swallow that with your stuffing.

If nothing else, the Orioles' last-minute entry into the Belle sweepstakes apparently drove up the New York Yankees' price on Bernie Williams, which counts for something.

The Orioles have offered Belle a five-year, $65 million contract and Rafael Palmeiro a five-year, $45 million package. They also appear willing to give Kevin Brown a long-term deal with an average salary of at least $10 million.

Major League Baseball could feed every hungry American for the next five Thanksgivings with the amount of money the AL teams threw around yesterday, but restraint is never on this sport's menu.

The Yankees, fearing they might get shut out on Belle and Williams, retained their center fielder last night for seven years and $87.5 million -- an increase of two years and $27.5 million over their previous offer.

Williams' decision stunned the Boston Red Sox, who believed they were on the verge of signing him to replace Mo Vaughn. But rather than turn to Belle, general manager Dan Duquette said that his team was no longer interested in the controversial slugger.

That seemingly leaves the Orioles as the front-runner, but Belle is a free agent only until Dec. 2 because of an unusual clause in his contract. He can still return to the Chicago White Sox for the final three seasons of his contract, valued at $33 million.

The Orioles are offering nearly twice that, but the White Sox might be a better team in 1999 -- they were 45-31 after the All-Star break last season, the second-best record in the AL, while the Orioles were 41-33.

So, why would Belle come to Baltimore?

Two reasons:

More money.

The chance to hit 60 home runs at Camden Yards.

Belle's production would merely replace Palmeiro's unless the Orioles also re-signed their first baseman, a dual effort to which they're prepared to commit $110 million.

Brown, seeking six years, likely would require another $72 million. And don't forget Mike Mussina, whose deal would need to be renegotiated to raise him to the same level.

The rest of the players?

Let them eat cake!

The clubhouse politics would become even more bizarre with Belle earning twice as much as all but three or four of his teammates. The Orioles would still lack leadership and chemistry. They would still need a catcher, a second baseman and relief help. And presumably, they would keep Brady Anderson in center, which isn't part of their plan.

But really, there is no plan.

What's the new definition of an Orioles-type player?

Anyone who will take their money.

Brian Jordan, Jose Offerman and Todd Stottlemyre wouldn't, so they're not Orioles. Belle might, so he's suddenly in play.

Here's a team that has never paid a salary of more than $7 million, and now is willing to give $13 million or more to the biggest boor in the game.

When you're playing Rotisserie ball -- the Orioles' preferred method of operation -- you go to the stats, get out the checkbook and ask questions later.

Belle has the stats -- a .328 batting average for the White Sox last season, with 49 homers, 48 doubles and 152 RBIs in a difficult hitter's park.

The Orioles have the checkbook -- they've subtracted nearly $16 million in salary by losing Eric Davis and Roberto Alomar and bidding farewell to Doug Drabek and Jimmy Key.

But now for the questions.

Owner Peter Angelos is a stickler for physical condition, and that's why he made the bold and correct call to sign Palmeiro over Will Clark in December 1993.

But isn't mental health just as important?

Belle, 32, is one of the game's top five offensive players, but his frightening history of anti-social behavior renders any investment in him a dangerous gamble.

He was suspended five times in the past six seasons for misconduct, and he wasn't exactly cruising down Oriole Way when he chased egg-throwing trick-or-treaters in his truck a few years back.

In fairness, he stayed largely free of trouble in his two seasons with the White Sox, save for a domestic battery charge that his accuser later dropped.

But this is Albert Belle.

If the Orioles are willing to give him $65 million, why didn't they go after Williams, a player who better fits their needs? Why didn't they go after Vaughn, a player whose magnetism could transform their franchise?

Money certainly doesn't appear to be a problem.

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