With Belle, it's numbers, not wins

May 13, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

CLEVELAND -- The Orioles claimed Albert Belle was going to alter their personality, make them intense, make them mean.

Spin again.

Frank Robinson transformed the Orioles when he arrived in 1966. But Belle is not that type of player, never has been, never will be.

If anything, he represents everything that club officials supposedly wanted to change after last season's disappointing 79-83 finish.

He's about numbers. He's about money. And if the Orioles win, then all right, what the heck, he's about winning, too.

Funny, that was the criticism of Rafael Palmeiro, but general manager Frank Wren seemed comfortable with losing him, at least after he signed with Texas.

Well, Palmeiro won two Gold Gloves at first base. He tried to assume certain leadership responsibilities. And when the Orioles see him for the first time tonight, they'll notice that he's batting .348.

Belle, meanwhile, dropped to .232 after going 0-for-4 with a sacrifice fly in last night's 6-5 loss to the Cleveland Indians. He also misplayed a slicing drive by Manny Ramirez, then missed the cutoff man, playing a likely single into a triple that led to the Indians' first run.

It's easy to pick on Belle when he has fewer homers than Jay Bell, David Bell, Juan Bell and Alexander Graham Bell. It's even easier when he has half as many doubles as the injured Cal Ripken, whose grand total is two.

Belle is going to hit, because he always hits. But for all their revisionist history, the Orioles already can see for themselves that the $65 million man is a winning player only on a winning club.

When Belle doesn't hit, other parts of his game suffer. When Belle doesn't hit, he looks like just another self-absorbed mercenary, playing for himself instead of the team.

He doesn't always run out grounders. He doesn't always focus in right field. Heck, he doesn't always take walks, even when pitchers are trying to pitch around him.

The reaction to Belle at Jacobs Field the past three days was predictable, but nonetheless surprising in its vehemence. Belle hasn't played in Cleveland since 1996. The Indians have been to a World Series and American League Championship Series without him. The '99 team might be their best yet.

And still, the fans won't forgive.

The fans, the organization, even some in the Cleveland media, they all apologized for Belle, trying to rationalize his various acts of misconduct. When Belle left for a better deal with the Chicago White Sox, then said it wasn't about money, many felt betrayed.

It's always about money. Everyone knows it's about money. And it was about money again when Belle left the White Sox for the Orioles, who are paying him $2 million more a year.

Belle could have owned Cleveland. He could have won world championships in Cleveland. His final two seasons with the Indians, the team was an astonishing 199-108 (.648). His teams since are 172-183 (.485).

The Indians evolved into a better club without him. The White Sox seem to be doing the same. But will Belle ever play in another World Series? And will it even matter to him if he doesn't?

The numbers will be there -- that's what all great hitters say when they're slumping. Belle is a slow starter. He's adjusting to a new city, a new position. And he isn't getting many pitches to hit, as his major-league-high 34 walks attest.

It's understandable if Belle is pressing, but he's the Orioles' marquee player, the one making "all the money," to quote a certain manager. The team's 12-21 record is largely attributable to poor starting pitching. But Belle isn't making much of a difference, either.

He's sitting on six homers and 22 RBIs, but his most astonishing statistic is his one double in 112 at-bats, a reflection of his failure to drive the ball to the gaps.

Belle is the major-league leader in doubles the past eight seasons. In 1995, he became the first player in history to hit 50 homers and 50 doubles in the same year.

One double?

Jose Offerman entered last night leading the league with 15. B.J. Surhoff leads the Orioles with nine. Willis Otanez has three, Jeff Reboulet two.

To this point, Belle has taken over only three of 33 games -- Opening Day, when he hit a three-run homer; April 15, when he hit two homers off Roger Clemens; and May 7, when he hit a three-run shot against Detroit.

The latter game appeared to signal a breakout. But since then, Belle has driven in only one run in 18 at-bats. He failed to advance Surhoff from second with none out in the seventh last night.

The numbers will be there.

But by the time Belle gets going, it might be too late.

That's what happened last season, when he went on a spectacular tear (.387, 31 homers, 86 RBIs) after the White Sox fell 15 1/2 games out at the All-Star break.

Even in '95, when Belle was named the Sporting News Player of the Year, he hit 31 of his 50 homers after July 31, a period in which the Indians' lead was never smaller than 16 games.

It would be unfair to say that Belle doesn't produce in meaningful games -- he hit several memorable postseason homers for the Indians. But he finished second to Mo Vaughn in the '95 MVP voting after voters determined that his numbers, impressive as they were, were slightly hollow.

He's what he is, a great hitter who puts up monster numbers. He can affect the outcome of a game, but he can't alter the personality of a franchise.

He's not Frank Robinson.

Never has been, never will be.

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