Belle, O's 'very close' Slugger appears set to sign for 5 years, $65M, a club record

Indiscretions rival homers

Texas' Palmeiro bid depends on R. Johnson

November 28, 1998|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Unable to secure the free agents at the top of their list, the Orioles apparently will go to Plan B, as in Belle. And breaking the bank.

The Orioles reportedly are set to announce that they've agreed to terms with Chicago White Sox slugger Albert Belle on a five-year deal worth about $65 million, the richest contract in club history.

A team spokesman said late last night that talks with Belle, 32, were progressing well and a deal appears close, but no agreement had been reached. An Associated Press source, speaking on condition that he not be identified, said early today the two sides were "very, extremely close" to coming to terms and an announcement could come any day.

"It's looking good, but we're not there yet," Arn Tellem, Belle's agent, told the New York Times last night. "It's premature to say it's done. There's still one issue we haven't resolved. I assume we can resolve it, but it's not there yet."

The AP source said that the money part of the contract had been agreed to, but the rest of the deal had not been finalized.

Belle would replace B. J. Surhoff in left field and give the Orioles one of the game's most prolific hitters. In eight full seasons, he's hit .296 with 321 homers and 1,019 RBIs. But his list of indiscretions is almost as long as some of his tape-measure blasts.

Belle has been suspended six times since beginning his major-league career with the Cleveland Indians. He was disciplined for destroying part of a bathroom, hitting a taunting fan in the chest with a thrown ball, twice charging the mound, using a corked bat and plowing into an infielder with his forearm on the basepaths.

Belle also has been fined twice and was ordered to undergo counseling after hitting a photographer with a thrown ball. He received more bad press in 1995 after using his vehicle to chase trick-or-treaters who had pelted his house with eggs.

The Orioles turned their attention to Belle, who hit .328 with 49 homers and 152 RBIs last season, after failing to land hometown hero Brian Jordan. The former Milford Mill High standout signed a five-year, $40 million deal with the Atlanta Braves, numbers equal to what the Orioles were offering. If Jordan had come to Baltimore, Brady Anderson would have shifted to left field.

Belle had been courted by the New York Yankees until they re-signed Bernie Williams on Wednesday for $87.5 million over seven years. Boston pulled out of the bidding the same day, leaving the Orioles as Belle's only alternative to returning to the .. White Sox.

Belle has until Wednesday to strike a deal before returning to Chicago, where he has three years and $35 million remaining on a contract he signed after the 1996 season. A unique clause allowed him to demand a raise if his average salary dropped out of the top three, which it did after Gary Sheffield was given a huge bonus to approve a trade to Los Angeles. When the White Sox turned down Belle's request, he filed for free agency.

Asked yesterday how Belle would blend in with the Orioles, manager Ray Miller said, "He's a very prolific hitter. He hit something like .400 at Camden Yards."

Two months have passed since the Orioles absorbed the last blow in a punishing 1998 season. Left doubled over and in fourth place, they're eager to begin the healing process. Unfortunately, free agency has been just as big a pain, with the club's only significant addition being Seattle closer Mike Timlin.

Holes have been poked in the outfield and the right side of the infield. There's still a void behind the plate, though speculation has intensified that the Orioles are on the verge of acquiring Todd Hundley from the New York Mets. There's also room in the rotation and the bullpen. The Orioles remain a work in progress.

"There's been a lot of activity but nobody's jumping at anything," Miller said yesterday afternoon. "They're all weighing one against the other and prices are going up and up. As with most situations it's kind of contingent on who you sign next.

"I will say this, the more big guys you get signed, the more other people want to sign with you. But the money is staggering."

To judge the Orioles on the field, you first have to look at what's on the table.

Surhoff has a three-year offer from the Orioles worth about $13.5 million that pales in comparison to Pittsburgh's four-year offer for slightly more than $16.5 million. Surhoff, who is scheduled to meet with Mets executives on Tuesday, could be headed to right field if he stays and Belle signs. He's frustrated by the Orioles' refusal to budge, but has made it clear his first choice is to remain here.

That was never the case with second baseman Roberto Alomar, who was reunited with his brother, Sandy, in Cleveland after signing for $32 million over four years. But the Orioles' efforts to keep another of their free agents, Rafael Palmeiro, at first base intensified with a modified five-year, $45 million offer earlier this week.

"I think we're a lot closer now," Miller said.

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