Belle is just the big swing the Orioles needed to take

December 02, 1998|By John Eisenberg

"The Orioles are getting a guy who is always on time. The first guy to get to the park. The last guy to leave. The hardest worker I have ever seen in any sport. He's right at the top of the list of athletes as far as commitment to winning and maintaining his own excellence and not slacking off."

That's Albert Belle, as described yesterday by his agent, Arn Tellem, who also represents numerous NBA players and therefore knows a slacker when he sees one. And although Tellem obviously was spin-doctoring Belle's arrival in Baltimore, he also was telling the truth.

You can debate Belle's character all day in the wake of his numerous problems on and off the field, but you can't debate his work ethic, intensity and commitment to his craft. No one in baseball debates that.

Belle cares. Deeply. Passionately. About winning. About playing every day. About being one of the game's best players.

The Orioles need that. Brother, do they ever.

After yawning through 1998 as an overpaid, lifeless, $69 million bust that all but quit on manager Ray Miller several times, they need someone who cares. Someone who isn't focused on stats or records or his contract or reputation or whatever, but winning. Just winning.

You're mad at the Orioles for signing him and losing Rafael Palmeiro? Then you're mad at the Orioles for signing a player who changes their face from a shrug to a snarl. A player who hates to take a day off, considers every at-bat a war, intimidates pitchers, studies tape endlessly and keeps extensive notes on at-bats and opponents.

He's a student of the game, an old-school competitor and a player whose taut, hungry body language says "I care" 162 times a year.

Bring it on.

Yes, losing Palmeiro is a shame. He gave the Orioles five good years. But trading him in for Belle is an upgrade. Belle's numbers are better, and he's more intense. The Orioles need that now. They don't need a 34-year-old first baseman with a five-year contract, not with Calvin Pickering on the way. They're better off spending the money elsewhere, like on a pitcher.

Sure, the risks in signing Belle are numerous and obvious. Some fans are going to get turned off. Belle could get in trouble again.

Still, bring it on.

Enough of the huggable, likable Beanie Baby Orioles. They were nice and respectful and didn't win. They paid homage to the Oriole Way and they finished 35 games behind the Yankees last season. It was their 15th straight season without a World Series trip.

Enough of that. Enough of being nice. Enough of clinging to some romantic, dated notion that the Orioles are still special because they had a classy organization 25 years ago.

It's a different era now, a different industry. The players have the hammer, not the front offices. The players have control. And the players cost money. Outrageous money.

Bully for the Orioles for bowing to a crazy free-agent market out of their control and adjusting their plans to sign the best hitter on the market.

Bully for them for tearing up their relatively conservative fiscal blueprint and doing something stupid and crazy in the name of trying to win.

Bully for them for dismissing all pretense and admitting that, above all, it was time to get mean.

If any fans are feeling betrayed by that, they'd better not mention it to fans of the Twins, A's and Royals, whose teams can't afford such players and are doomed to dull, losing seasons before the first pitch of spring training. The fans of any team in baseball's small-market underclass won't take kindly to whining about Belle's being "hard to root for."

Please. More than half of the teams in the major leagues couldn't afford Belle. They have no shot at winning. The Orioles also might not win next year, but at least they have a shot. And at least they have the money to try.

If you find Belle unhuggable and hard to root for, fine, you're not alone. But uninteresting is a lot worse than unhuggable, and uninteresting is an apt description for small-market baseball. The Orioles aren't that. Whatever they are, they aren't dull, cheap or doomed.

"We're in a competitive division of large-market franchises," general manager Frank Wren said yesterday. "Our choice was to stand by and get passed or jump into the fray."

Bully for them for taking this jump in particular. Belle is just what they needed, not what they needed to avoid. He's a heart. A pulse. He'll play 162 games as if each is his last. He won't pout. He'll put up huge numbers. That's all welcomed after the disaster of 1998.

As for his behavior off the field and his standing in the clubhouse and community, we can only judge him by what happens here. That's fair for both sides.

No, he isn't going to be chummy with the media, a hit with fans or a huge presence in the community. We know that going in. But as long as he isn't mean, he won't have any problems. As long as he treats people with respect, he'll be accepted for what he does on the field. He should keep that in mind.

It's a huge risk for the Orioles, who have cultivated a profitable, feel-good persona at Camden Yards. Belle's reputation hardly helps that.

But bully for them for putting winning ahead of that or any other concerns. Bully for them for trying a new approach after the old one went up in smoke.

Albert Belle, batting cleanup in Baltimore? Bring it on.

Pub Date: 12/02/98

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