O's can't run from Belle's sour tune

July 16, 1999|By JOHN EISNEBERG

The Orioles would love to find a new home for Albert Belle. Let him confront the manager in the dugout, make lewd gestures to his hometown fans and hit .232 with runners in scoring position somewhere else.

But there's a problem. The five-year, $65 million contract Belle signed last winter includes a blanket no-trade clause for three years. He can veto any deal until after the 2001 season. No matter how badly the Orioles might want to dump him, he can stay if he wants.

The Orioles have only themselves to blame, of course. This is a predicament borne of their own arrogance. Giving Belle three years of no-trade control amounted to them saying they were sure they could turn him into a clubhouse asset, succeeding where all others had failed.

Well. Oops.

In their defense, Belle caused few problems in his two seasons in Chicago, and with the way he mashed the ball last season, the reward of his power hitting almost seemed worth the risk of any possible controversies he might cause.

Still, almost everyone the Orioles asked about Belle last winter advised them not to sign him -- a dangerous consensus to flout. And not only did the Orioles flout it, but they threw in the no-trade deal they're already regretting.

Belle, 32, has responded to the lucrative free pass as you might expect someone with his erratic history to respond. He has wagged his no-trade control in the club's face all season, in a variety of ways.

His occasional jogs down the first base line, his petition to boycott the Rochester exhibition and his obscene gestures aimed at fans all carry the same underlying message to the Orioles: "You can't touch me."

What are the Orioles' alternatives? There aren't many. At least not many that are realistic.

They could try to void Belle's contract, claiming he has violated the standard clause demanding "professional behavior." But the chances of that happening are microscopic. Other players have committed far more grievous transgressions over the years -- drugs, felonies -- without having their contracts voided.

Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos is a terrific lawyer, but he'd have a hard time winning that one, especially with the players union certain to jump into the middle of things.

The only other alternative is to try to make Belle so unhappy that he'd waive his no-trade clause and accept a deal sending him elsewhere.

Make him miserable enough to want to leave, in other words.

That'd still be only half the solution, of course, and the other half -- finding a team willing to take Belle, his contract and his embarrassing behavior -- would be the tougher part, no doubt. Imagine the classified ad: "For sale: troublesome outfielder not living up to expectations." Hardly a seductive pitch.

In any case, and for whatever reason, the Orioles do seem to have embarked on an attempt to make Belle unhappy. That was apparent in their reaction when The Sun uncovered the news that a fan had complained so harshly about Belle's behavior during a game that Angelos responded by giving the fan dinner and tickets.

Had such a story surfaced in the spring, when the Orioles were supporting Belle, they would have complained about Belle being singled out because of his past.

This time, club officials confessed they'd gone to great lengths to investigate the matter and decided Belle's behavior was, indeed, inappropriate and embarrassing. Hardly a show of support for their $65 million man.

The club's response surely infuriated Belle, who hasn't spoken to local reporters since spring training. But don't be surprised to see more of the same in the coming weeks or months. It's the only course the Orioles can chart if they're serious about unloading Belle.

The situation never would have arisen if free-agent outfielder Brian Jordan had accepted the Orioles' $40 million offer last fall. Had Jordan come here as the starting center fielder, Brady Anderson would have moved to left field, B. J. Surhoff would have moved to right and the club never would have gambled on Belle.

Why, it's even possible Rafael Palmeiro might have stayed if the club hadn't "insulted" him by offering Belle more money than it ever offered Palmeiro during months of negotiations.

So blame it all on Jordan, who ended up signing with the Braves and making the National League All-Star team.

Actually, no, blame it on the Orioles, who became convinced that they had to do something drastic to make up lost ground. They were desperate to make a bold stroke, and Belle fell in their laps after his negotiations with the Yankees failed.

Half a season later, the Orioles are ready to call off the marriage. And can you blame them? Never mind that Belle isn't hitting as well as he did in Chicago and Cleveland. You just can't have your top players challenging the manager and making obscene gestures at fans. That just won't do.

But you know the score. The club's options are few and farfetched. Belle batted cleanup and played right field last night at Camden Yards, and he'll probably stay in both places.

The Orioles wanted the guy, and they got him.

Pub Date: 7/16/99

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