Toll of Belle grows louder

O's try to downplay shouting match, but incident isn't isolated

Bottle thrown

Crowley feud

Jogging, club inaction bring resentment

June 11, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- Even as club officials and family members minimized the aftershocks of Wednesday night's dugout confrontation between Orioles right fielder Albert Belle and manager Ray Miller, the incident provided a glimpse into what many see as an expanding swirl around the combustible slugger and his new team.

"It's an internal matter, which by definition means it will be handled internally," general manager Frank Wren said yesterday. "The situation will be dealt with."

Rightly or wrongly, Belle has become the poster child for the Orioles' calamitous 22-36 season. He is the game's highest-paid annual player with a no-trade guarantee through 2001 but is receiving increased attention for indifferent defensive play and jogs to first base.

Wednesday's incident was preceded by Belle's failure to hustle on a two-out grounder against the Florida Marlins in the ninth inning. When the throw from third base sailed wide, pulling first baseman Kevin Millar from the bag, Belle was still too far down the line to beat the play. It cost the Orioles a run in a 4-2 game and left Miller to replace him with Rich Amaral in a double switch. At first Belle didn't notice the maneuver, continuing to right field and awaiting his hat and glove. When no one came out with them, he returned to the dugout, found out he had been replaced and immediately engaged Miller in a nose-to-nose profanity-laced tirade before teammates Jeff Reboulet and Harold Baines pulled them apart. Miller eventually waved Belle off.

When the manager approached Belle in the clubhouse after the game to further explain the situation, Belle turned on Miller and said, "Don't back me up again."

As the Orioles continued to handle the issue like a live grenade, Belle again had no comment yesterday but his brother, Terry, insisted the incident was a result of frustration rather than a longstanding problem with the manager.

"Albert likes Ray. If anything happened, it happened in the heat of battle. It's over with. They're going to work it out. They both want to win," said Terry Belle. "It amazes me how this is sensationalized whereas 400 kids go to see their first game in Texas and that was barely covered and four kids received Albert Belle scholarships to college and that wasn't covered either."

Miller also has refused further comment on the matter. However, before Wednesday's game he downplayed Belle's recent lapses by saying they aren't unique to the right fielder. "Everything looks worse when a team isn't playing well," Miller said. "Albert's not the only guy who hasn't run out everything. I can remember it happening with Brady [Anderson] and Harold on a pop-up. But Albert has been struggling. That probably magnifies it."

Like the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox before them, the Orioles have tread carefully with Belle ever since signing him to a five-year, $65 million contract last Dec. 1. At the time Wren declared the move as a "no-brainer" while Belle pledged to establish at least a passing relationship with Orioles fans and local media.

During spring training Belle cooperated with autograph-seekers and gave an extended interview to national media gathered at the team's Fort Lauderdale training facility. Sports Illustrated, among others, produced a favorable article regarding his apparent transformation.

Belle's tone changed abruptly on March 11. Frustrated over a poor at-bat during an exhibition game, Belle attacked his locker with a bat with reporters nearby. When a wire service reporter wrote about the incident, Belle cut off contact with Baltimore media. The club immediately reacted by tightening clubhouse access for the rest of spring training.

Belle wasted little time demonstrating his well-publicized intensity; meanwhile, the Orioles consistently turned a blind eye to several embarrassing incidents.

Working in an indoor batting cage one March morning, Belle noticed a bystander looking on. Protective of his work environment, Belle loudly cursed the onlooker, who wore a daily pass authorized by the club. Jarred, the man retreated. No one told Belle the man watching him was former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Dave Concepcion.

Belle typically refuses to acknowledge the presence of reporters, including those attempting to speak with him about his Web site or his cereal, Slugger. He also has refused to deal with Orioles rights holders WBAL and Home Team Sports, neither of which specializes in controversy.

Less than three weeks into the season, Belle hurled a beer bottle through a television inside the visitors clubhouse at Tropicana Field. Belle paid for the damage and no fine was levied.

On several occasions Wren has urged fining Belle but, according to club sources, has been blocked by majority owner Peter Angelos, who must approve all significant penalties.

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