Bending over backward on Belle only leads to pain

June 13, 1999|By John Steadman

What to do with a $65 million headache presents the Orioles with the kind of torment they have never been asked to endure certainly not in the 45-year history of their franchise. The childish, disruptive actions of one Albert Belle, their highest-paid player, are simply not acceptable.

His conduct is a reflection on the entire organization. That's the embarrassing part of it all. Do they send him off to a charm school in an attempt to succeed in a personality makeover or, maybe as fathers used to do with sons they felt were incorrigible, use the imagined panacea of dispatching them to a military academy for a year of well-disciplined training?

Either Belle conforms or he goes. It's that elementary. If they can't make a deal someplace else, then tell him to pack his bags and issue an outright release. Once they start testing the trade winds, his value is going to depreciate, anyhow. Teams aren't too quick to want to relieve a competitor of a $65 million contract obligation that has turned out to be an enormous and regrettable pain.

It's not that the Orioles weren't fully aware he was going to take special handling. Manager Ray Miller tried hard, but his techniques didn't work with Belle. The result: Belle and Miller have bottomed out, and the team is right there -- also on the bottom.

When a manager can't get even cursory respect from a player, without being cursed, it's painfully evident how things on the Good Ship Oriole have deteriorated.

When Belle gets into an argument with his manager, in the presence of other players, he's in out-of-bounds territory. It's called challenging authority. In an odd twist, Miller has been his strongest ally -- which shows making allowances for Belle's behavior, attempting to pacify and placate him, has not worked. An ability to hit a baseball is no reason to continue the preferential spoiling of an adult who demeans the one man, his manager, who consistently aligned himself in his corner.

When a manager and player have such a disturbing dialogue, it sends a clear message that the situation presents an extreme danger. Is it out of control? The assumption is that leadership is woefully lacking, a quality not being demonstrated effectively enough by the manager. So Miller, in a way, also takes a hit in the scenario created by Belle. The Orioles inadvertently suffer.

In earlier successes, in pennant years, the Orioles wouldn't put up with what they perceived as trouble from players. They shipped 'em out, allowing another club to take what they considered, right or wrong, a likely problem child off their hands. This was the reason they quietly cited when discussing a willingness to send Milt Pappas to Cincinnati and Curt Blefary to Houston in what was termed "addition by subtraction." They fared handsomely, getting Frank Robinson and Mike Cuellar as a result of the deals.

The difficulty caused by Belle in Cleveland and Chicago was not any inside secret. The Orioles only had to read a 1996 edition of Baseball Digest and a column by editor John Kuenster to be fully aware of what they were getting.

Kuenster, a baseball writer before joining the magazine, has the reputation of being one of the most tolerant men on all of God's good earth. You only have to read his enjoyable magazine to know his policy is to accentuate what's good about baseball and its players.

Under the headline, "Albert Belle's Words and Actions Dishonored Major League Baseball," the self-destructive player was criticized by one of the fairest, most considerate men it has been a privilege to know in 50 years of being in and out of press boxes.

He related how Belle told a reporter to get out of his way when the man was in an area where he was officially permitted to stand. "Look, Albert," replied the sportswriter, "you tried your intimidation thing on me last year and I walked away. I'm not putting up with any more of your [abuse]." Belle responded with a crude physical threat.

When in college at LSU, Belle was benched for not running out a drive when he got only to first base. This, according to Kuenster, caused him to miss the NCAA regionals and College World Series.

Now, 12 years later, the ever-protective-of-Belle Orioles, with an enormous investment involved, and the Baltimore-area media gave him more than an even break. When he signed during the off-season, details of his stormy past were minimized.

He was given a clean slate, a fresh start, and no man anywhere, in any line of work, can ask for fairer understanding than that. Yet Belle went out of his way, obstinately creating trouble for himself, while preferring to decimate the goodwill others so considerately wanted him to have.

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