First-day HR could go long way for Belle

April 05, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

A year ago on Opening Day, Mark McGwire hit a grand slam for the first of his record 70 homers. A decade ago, Cal Ripken hit a three-run homer off Roger Clemens to launch the Orioles' "Why Not?" 1989 season.

Opening Day homers often attain a mythical quality, and there can be no better way for the Albert Belle Era to begin than with a shot today off Tampa Bay left-hander Wilson Alvarez.

Not to put pressure on Belle -- he's a .244 career hitter off Alvarez, with only two homers in 45 at-bats -- but his success in Baltimore will be determined almost solely by his on-field performance.

That's what he demands.

And for $65 million, that's all the Orioles expect.

It's a new era, all right, one that will require an adjustment for fans accustomed to forging strong emotional ties with their favorite Orioles stars, from Brooks and Frank Robinson to Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken.

Free agency weakened those bonds -- fans never felt the same attachment to Rafael Palmeiro and Roberto Alomar that they did to past Orioles stars. And Belle could all but sever them, following his own routines, living in his own world.

He isn't going to be Brooks Robinson, greeting everyone with a smile; Ripken, signing autographs by the thousands; Murray, giving back to the community even after leaving the team.

Not that Belle is completely an island -- he extended his autograph session at FanFest, signed at various points this spring and donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to church, school and charitable organizations.

Still, he acknowledged the crowd only once during spring training, and that was in Cuba, the only place where he wasn't booed. Orioles fans can't expect him to be touchy-feely. They can, however, expect him to do the uniform proud.

As Belle begins his five-year contract -- the Orioles can trade him to any of eight to 10 teams after his first three seasons -- it is at once thrilling and terrifying to consider the possibilities that his arrival presents.

Will Belle challenge McGwire's home run record and lead the Orioles back to glory? Or will his signing prove a colossal mistake, a public relations nightmare no matter how brilliantly he performs?

The Orioles asked Belle to be more media- and fan-friendly, but they're not going to push it. Belle already has shut down the media, and he'll never relate to fans like Ripken. He's getting paid to crush baseballs -- that's it.

He isn't a clubhouse leader. Nor is he a gate attraction -- the Chicago White Sox finished next-to-last in the AL last season in average attendance. He's simply a great player, the major-league leader in home runs and RBIs the past eight seasons.

The Orioles will get their money's worth if Belle bashes 50 homers, drives in 150 runs and leads them back to the postseason. A little decorum also would be nice. And yes, a little class.

That means no chasing kids on Halloween. No cursing out reporters. No throwing balls at fans or photographers. No huge gambling losses. No suspensions for corking bats.

All those incidents are part of Belle's history, but he steered relatively clear of trouble during the past two seasons in Chicago. At the age of 32, he should be maturing. And the Orioles should hold him accountable for any errant behavior.

It remains to be seen whether a wobbly manager (Ray Miller) and inexperienced general manager (Frank Wren) would confront Belle if necessary, or if they would simply apologize for him, fearing he would react negatively to internal criticism.

Wren was not wrong to defend Belle after the media reported the slugger's clubhouse tantrum -- the punishment Belle received nationally hardly fit the crime. On the other hand, when you sign a player with Belle's past, media friction is almost inevitable.

If Belle doesn't want to talk, so be it -- he is not obligated to communicate to fans through the media. But when he refuses to give his side of a story, he's in no position to complain about treatment he perceives as unfair.

The majority of fans don't give a hoot one way or the other -- they just want Belle to hit and the Orioles to win. But fans, too, can get carried away, especially if they place unrealistic expectations on Belle's performance.

For one thing, Belle is a relatively slow starter -- he hit only one home run in 58 at-bats this spring, and batted .247 last March/April. During the past five seasons, the first month is the only one in which he has been under .300.

Seventy homers? Stop it. Belle has never hit more than 50, and the effect of hitter-friendly Camden Yards is sometimes exaggerated -- teams combined for more homers at Comiskey Park last season (181) than Camden (172).

Good numbers and good manners, that's the desired combination. No one expects Belle to be prince of the city. But the fans want to love him, and they don't need him to show much love in return.

Hit an Opening Day homer, Albert.

It might be the start of a beautiful relationship.

Pub Date: 4/05/99

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