Belle costs O's an apology, too

Upset by rude gestures, fan writes Angelos, gets game in owner's box

July 14, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

A written protest of Albert Belle's on-field antics landed University Park resident Norm D. St. Landau a dinner invitation from Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos and apparently has placed the combustible right fielder under closer organizational scrutiny.

Bothered by Belle's repeated gestures to fans in the bleachers during a June 4 game at Camden Yards against the Philadelphia Phillies, St. Landau faxed a letter to Angelos detailing his experience. Within days Angelos phoned the season-ticket holder with his apologies and arranged for him and his family to watch the Orioles' June 22 game against the Boston Red Sox from the owner's box. Belle won the game with a three-run homer.

"I think the response was entirely appropriate. It was really the first time I was aware of any of Albert's actions being directed at our fans," Orioles chief operating officer Joe Foss said yesterday. "We wanted to get a personal accounting of what they had observed and the reactions they had. It's different when an athlete is angry after a game and breaks a TV set or felt his space is violated during spring training and deals with media in the manner he's chosen. It's another thing to post a petition. Those are internal matters club officials deal with."

Angelos, attending last night's All-Star Game in Boston, could not be reached to comment.

Foss declined to elaborate on what measures may have been taken against Belle, except to say the matter was being handled "internally."

The organization insisted much the same after Belle shattered a clubhouse TV following a loss at Tropicana Field on April 21 and after he engaged manager Ray Miller in an ugly shouting match in the visitors' dugout on June 9. During spring training, the club actually embraced Belle after he swore off Baltimore media because it reported a self-directed clubhouse tirade. However, the latest incident was apparently viewed with more gravity.

Said Foss: "We've got a clear picture of what's going on."

Spurred on by Belle's slow chase of a fly ball, fans in the bleachers began to serenade the right fielder, singing, "Allll-bert. Allll-bert." According to St. Landau, Belle responded by sticking up his middle finger and by grabbing various parts of his lower anatomy. The embarrassed family was asked to explain the gestures by a niece.

"They noticed right away," he said. "I was almost impressed with how he went about it. It was almost as if he was slick and practiced and stealth about delivering these messages to fans."

Angelos, Foss and chief counsel Russell Smouse spoke at length with St. Landau, who attended the game with his brother's family from Philadelphia.

St. Landau's sister-in-law happens to be Signe Wilkinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Inspired in her seat, Wilkinson sketched Belle's pose and eventually submitted it for publication in last Friday's editions.

"The kids were mesmerized," Wilkinson said. "They were both aghast that anyone would do that and thrilled that Albert was noticing the fans."

In his two-page, single-spaced letter dated June 9, St. Landau demanded Angelos refund the face value of his tickets plus parking, a sum of $88; a written apology from Belle; a written apology from Angelos and a suspension of Belle. St. Landau also lambasted Angelos for allowing last year's right fielder and cleanup hitter, Eric Davis and Rafael Palmeiro, to escape via free agency before signing Belle to a five-year, $65 million contract.

"Why you chose to inflict Mr. Belle upon Baltimore and its fans in lieu of beloved players such as Eric Davis and Rafael Palmeiro appears to be a mystery we will have to live with for years," St. Landau wrote. "You owe your fans a deep apology "

Though he didn't receive a refund or a personal apology from Belle, who also hasn't been suspended, St. Landau was more than satisfied by the team's response, which included dinner in Angelos' box and a brief meeting with the majority owner before leaving the game.

"If I owned a business and one of my employees did that, I would be outraged," said St. Landau, who does own a business as a partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm, Tucker, Flyer, P.C. "The guy [Angelos] obviously cares about his product. He was very earnest in a sincere way."

Angelos was serious enough that ushers working the bleachers June 4 were interviewed. A consistent theme emerged that while fans were tough on Belle for a perceived lack of hustle, the insults were not profane. When St. Landau and his family were entertained in Angelos' box, the conciliatory theme was repeated by Foss and Smouse. "They expressed their concern that this would happen during a baseball game. They made a lot of effort to express how they care about the product and the fans' experience," recalled St. Landau.

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