O's see Belle as worth risk, $65M Chemistry would change, but Angelos unwilling to let O's be Yanks 'doormat'

November 29, 1998|By Peter Schmuck and Roch Kubatko | Peter Schmuck and Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

Free-agent outfielder Albert Belle might be the most dangerous all-around offensive threat in baseball. He might be the most volatile personality in professional sports. And he might be an Oriole before the day is out.

The club apparently is on the verge of signing Belle to a five-year, $65 million deal that would significantly upgrade the Orioles' run-production potential and dramatically alter the chemistry in the clubhouse.

The 32-year-old outfielder hit .328 with 49 home runs and 152 RBIs for the Chicago White Sox in 1998, numbers that put him among the American League's top three in all three Triple Crown statistical categories.

He also has a long history of combative behavior, dating back to his minor-league career with the Cleveland Indians. He has been suspended six times, investigated by Major League Baseball for gambling and involved in a series of questionable off-field incidents, but the Orioles feel that Belle, for all his problems, might be the answer to theirs.

Owner Peter Angelos explained last night that the club's diminishing options in the free-agent market made it impossible to ignore a player of Belle's caliber.

"I'm not prepared to let Baltimore become a doormat for the Yankees," Angelos said. "There's a certain risk involved, but there's also a certain likelihood of reward. I'm not going to let this team languish. My intentions are to keep this team competitive."

The deal isn't done yet. Agent Arn Tellem indicated on Friday that there was a sticking point in the negotiations, probably the club's desire to defer a chunk of each year's salary beyond the term of the contract.

Club officials seemed confident yesterday that the final details would be worked out in time for a formal news conference tomorrow, but Belle's twin brother and adviser, Terry, said last night that the possibility still exists that Belle might return to the White Sox.

"He's looking at Baltimore," Terry Belle said. "He still loves Chicago, but he's looking at Baltimore."

Orioles general manager Frank Wren worked throughout the day yesterday to try to finalize the deal. Negotiations are expected to continue today, but Wren would not make any predictions.

"I wouldn't know how to speculate on that," he said. "We're still talking and working on some things."

Belle has to decide by Wednesday whether to sign with another club or return to the White Sox for the remaining three years of the five-year, $55 million deal he signed before the 1996 season. He became a free-look free agent because of a clause in his White Sox contract that allowed him a month-long negotiating window in the event that three other players surpassed him in average annual salary.

His checkered past left room to wonder if he would draw much interest on the free-agent market, but the rival Yankees made a strong overture before they re-signed Bernie Williams and the Boston Red Sox also viewed him -- for a time -- as a fallback position in case they failed to re-sign first baseman Mo Vaughn.

The Orioles jumped in at that point because of legitimate concern that they would be left far behind in the American League East if Belle signed with either of their chief divisional rivals.

"Would you like to see him in the Yankees lineup?" Angelos said.

Belle's past is an open book, and it is a scary one. He underwent alcohol rehabilitation at the Cleveland Clinic in 1990. He has been suspended for drilling a heckler in the chest with a baseball, for charging the mound (twice), for using a corked bat, for destroying part of a clubhouse bathroom and for leveling an infielder with a forearm to the head.

He also was fined $50,000 for a profanity-laced tirade at television commentator Hannah Storm before Game 3 of the 1995 World Series, charged with a traffic offense for using his car to chase trick-or-treaters who had thrown eggs at his house and ordered to undergo counseling for hitting a Sports Illustrated photographer with a baseball.

If that isn't enough, he has admitted to incurring huge gambling losses ($40,000) and been granted immunity for his testimony in a federal investigation of illegal bookmaking, money laundering and tax fraud.

Club officials privately acknowledge that the signing is a major organizational gamble that Belle could turn out to be either the answered prayer for a team in crisis or a public relations disaster for a club with an adoring public. Manager Ray Miller thinks he is well worth the risk.

"Who wouldn't want someone who had 50 homers and 150 RBIs playing in one of the biggest ballparks in the league? He's arguably the most prolific right-handed hitter in the game," Miller said yesterday.

Belle was not available for comment. His brother indicated that he would not speak publicly until after he makes his decision. But he told a reporter for the Arlington Herald recently that he did not think that his reputation would have a major impact on his chances of upgrading from his current contract.

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