Waving Belle off is Miller's best '99 move

June 11, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

Manager Ray Miller finally figured out a way to endear himself to Orioles fans. That dismissive wave of his hand at Albert Belle perfectly summarized the city's frustration with the $65 million man.

Frankly, the only question is what took Miller so long to confront a player who is an embarrassment to the uniform that players like Frank Robinson and Eddie Murray made proud.

Belle's pitiful effort in the Cuba exhibition, his refusal to run out a ball he thought was foul Sunday, his failure to run hard on a grounder in the ninth inning of Wednesday night's 4-2 victory -- enough is enough already.

But Miller said that he didn't bench Belle for his lethargic effort. No, Miller took an even bolder tact as an Orioles manager in the late '90s -- he tried to manage his team.

Think back to Cal Ripken's icy stare in the dugout after Davey Johnson removed him for pinch-runner Manny Alexander in '96, to Rafael Palmeiro's "who me?" response when Johnson made a similar move in the final game of the '96 ALCS.

Better yet, think back to Brady Anderson's dugout tantrum after Miller asked him to execute a sacrifice bunt against Texas last month. To varying degrees, all three reactions carried the same underlying theme: How dare he?

Now here's Belle, pulling the same stunt. Miller, managing under National League rules in Florida, removed the right fielder as part of a double switch with a two-run lead in the ninth -- a downright automatic move, given Belle's Cold Glove defense.

Indeed, Belle's dugout tirade was all the more outrageous considering that he could have increased the lead to three runs if he had run hard with two out and a runner on third in the top half.

The throw from third pulled first baseman Kevin Millar off the bag, but Millar had enough time to scramble back for the out. Belle should have beaten the play. And the way the Orioles' bullpen is going, this team needs all the runs it can get.

The cruel joke is that club officials smugly predicted Belle would alter the Orioles' chemistry with his intense approach. Well, shock of shocks, Belle isn't part of the solution. He perpetuates -- and exacerbates -- the problem.

The Orioles alienated former second baseman Roberto Alomar by permit ting Ripken and even Anderson to operate under double standards, staying in separate hotels, setting their own work schedules before games.

Belle requires even greater concessions. Yet, this is the player the Orioles chose to pay $13 million per season, with a no-trade clause for the first three years, when their next highest-paid player, Mike Mussina, is earning $6.825 million.

Two months into Belle's contract, the Orioles surely are regretting it. And the only surprise is that Belle's disappointing performance has been on the field, not off it, where most of his problems have occurred in the past.

Perhaps now owner Peter Angelos will begin to understand that his team of high-priced divas requires not just a manager who is supported by ownership, but one strong enough to hold together a clubhouse with conflicting personalities and agendas.

Johnson possessed that strength, but Angelos undercut his authority by backing Alomar in a dispute over a fine. Miller is blessed with support that Johnson never had, but his insecurity and inadequacies cost him the players' respect.

Miller has publicly defended Belle, just as he publicly defended Alomar last season when the second baseman went into funks. Even after Wednesday's game, he declined to criticize Belle, saying, "What happens internally stays internally and it will be taken care of internally" -- an interesting stance, seeing as how Miller routinely attacks other players in the media.

Still, you can appreciate the difficulty of Miller's position. No one with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox ever confronted Belle, at least not after he became a star. Indeed, the same Cleveland officials who now skewer him privately spent years defending his errant behavior to the public.

The Orioles' problem is even more acute -- Belle is earning more than $80,000 per game, so benching him would amount to almost a business decision. What's more, he might sulk, which could lead to an even lesser return on the club's staggering investment.

Which leads to the really juicy question: Would Angelos back the manager to whom he is emotionally wedded or the outfielder to whom he is financially committed, both beyond reason?

When New York Mets general manager Steve Phillips fired three coaches last Saturday, manager Bobby Valentine responded by saying, "I don't need a message when we are one game under .500 with a $70 million payroll."

Well, Miller is 14 games under .500 with an $84 million payroll, but if he hasn't been fired by now, when will he be? If the answer is "when he benches Albert Belle," then at least some of the beleaguered manager's dignity would be restored.

Heck, he might even leave a hero.

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