Belle's bat: too little, too late

July 09, 1999|By John Eisenberg

A total of seven Orioles were on base for Albert Belle's first four at-bats yesterday at Camden Yards. Belle drove in one -- on a double-play ball.

His fifth and final at-bat of the day came in the ninth, with the Orioles trailing the Blue Jays by six runs and much of an announced crowd of 41,738 having dispersed. Belle popped a home run to left, and the Orioles lost by five runs instead of six.

Watching him fail when it counts and deliver when it doesn't is not what the Orioles had in mind when they signed Belle to a five-year, $65 million contract last winter.

In his defense, he has come through on other days, and he's on a pace to deliver 35 home runs and 96 RBIs with a .273 average -- reasonable totals.

But let's face it, the Orioles expected a lot more from Belle, and it's getting a little late in the season to say he's just off to a slow start. Sorry, the statute of limitations has expired on that spin.

At this point, with the Orioles having played 84 games, more than half of their season, it's time to wonder if Belle is ever going to turn into the monster who was supposed to eat Camden Yards in 1999.

And if he does, well, let it be noted that the club was already out of contention when it finally happened.

Not to blame the Orioles' demise solely on Belle. He might be a fitting symbol for a team being paid $84 million to floun der in last place in the American League East, but a lack of quality pitching is the team's No. 1 problem. The starters faltered early in the season, the bullpen faltered lately and everyone faltered yesterday as the Blue Jays hit six homers.

But there are numerous other problems, too, and Belle is on the list.

No, not because of his Web site-only interview policy, his dugout altercation with manager Ray Miller, his attitude toward exhibition games or any of the other side issues that have caused controversy.

And not because of his spotty outfield play, either.

Belle is on the list because he's being paid to be a power hitter and deliver runs by the bushel, and, well, it's not happening.

His home run total is legitimate enough, but he has only seven doubles in 311 at-bats, a stunning statistic for a guy who has cranked out doubles like others hit singles throughout his career.

His knack for hitting doubles has disappeared almost entirely.

So has his ability to come through in the clutch, as evidenced by his 0-for-5 total in bases-loaded situations and his overall batting average with runners in scoring position -- a lowly .228, almost 40 points below the Orioles' team average for this season and a jaw-dropping 75 points below Belle's average over the prior five seasons.

And wait, there's more. With two outs and runners in scoring position, Belle is hitting only .178 -- again, far, far below the team's average.

B. J. Surhoff is hitting over .400 (with two outs and runners in scoring position), Cal Ripken is hitting over .300 and Belle is 8-for-45.

The lesson? The production pace he's on isn't embarrassing, but it should be higher. Much higher. Like, along the lines of what Manny Ramirez, Juan Gonzalez and Ken Griffey are producing.

Belle has belonged in that company of sluggers until now.

What's gone wrong? There's a tough question. He's working as hard as ever, scouts insist his bat is still quick and cozy Camden Yards is a perfect place for him to hit. Remember those predictions that he'd hit 50 homers or maybe even 60 this year?

OK, those were high expectations. But Belle warranted measurement against that standard after producing 48 doubles, 49 homers and 152 RBIs in 1998, and then signing his budget-busting contract with the Orioles. The harsh scrutiny isn't unfair in the least, not at $80,000 a game.

Granted, his impact on the offense has been felt in other, positive ways. It's not a coincidence that Surhoff is hitting .339 in front of him and Harold Baines is hitting .347 behind him. They're getting good pitches to hit. Belle isn't seeing as many. That's why he's second in the league in walks.

But yesterday, the Blue Jays pitched a lot more carefully to Surhoff, the All-Star, than they did to Belle. Surhoff walked three times in five at-bats. Belle made four outs before hitting his ninth-inning homer.

Make of that what you wish, but there's no mistaking Belle's overall season numbers. He's ranked third on the Orioles in home runs and RBIs, and Delino DeShields, who has battled injuries all season, has as many doubles.

That's just not good enough for a player who was supposed to carry the offense.

Not even close.

Pub Date: 7/09/99

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