FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- His teammates have long insisted that Albert Belle is no distraction, just a driven talent with an obsession for hitting routine hitting winning hitting numbers and, oh, did anyone mention hitting?
No one within the industry can denigrate Belle's awesome production, though many have raised questions about his communication skills outside the clubhouse.
But almost two weeks into camp Belle has given indications of modifying his obsession to routine and distaste for distractions, media and otherwise. His countenance has been more relaxed than a year ago when he walked into camp carrying a five-year, $65 million contract and accompanying expectations that neither he nor his team could meet.
"I feel better about 2000. It seems like we have the same team we had last year going to spring training. A year ago we had a lot of new faces. It was kind of chaotic compared to now. Everybody's excited. We're all familiar with each other," Belle says.
Many athletes are creatures of habit; however, Belle represents the extreme. His rigorous off-season training, his pre-game preparation and even his post-game yogurts depend on precise alignment and punctuality.
It is perhaps part of the reason that, by his stratospheric standards, Belle struggled in his first season with the Chicago White Sox in 1997 as well as his first year with the Orioles. Not only did Bell land in a new city last April, he landed within a new environment with different expectations of its heroes than in Chicago, where the White Sox rank as Second City's second team. The mix became only further complicated by his move from left field to right field in quirky Camden Yards.
"I was a little shaky about playing right field at first," says the strong-armed Belle, who ended up tying Kansas City right fielder Jermaine Dye for the American League lead with 17 outfield assists. "I know I was a little shaky out there in April and May. I broke in in right field [with Cleveland] in '89 and got switched over to left field in '90. It had been almost eight years since I played right field."
Belle is now more comfortable with the different angles -- both of his position and his surroundings.
Belle confirmed sending a letter to majority owner Peter Angelos last winter not only confirming his presence at January's FanFest but his anticipation for a more productive, pacific season.
"I wanted to promote the Orioles and maybe persuade the fans who had turned the other way to come back," says Belle, who became a popular presence at the carnival. "Hopefully, they'll be part of that process and we told them we'd be willing to work things out."
Though camp offers a managerial change, Mike Hargrove represents another familiar face. Hargrove served as Belle's first professional manager in Kinston in 1987 before becoming his major-league manager. The relationship, which included several bumps, ended when Belle departed via free agency for Chicago after the '96 season and consecutive playoff appearances.
"He knows my approach to the game," says Belle. "He knows where I'm going to be all the time. He knows I'm going to be in the batting cage, the weight room or the video room watching videotapes. That's 24 guys he has left to worry about. He's familiar with Harold Baines, so that's 23 guys instead of a whole new team and a whole new makeup."
Player and manager have spoken regularly since FanFest. When asked about his right fielder, Hargrove usually begins by saying, "Albert's Albert." He then restates his admiration for Belle's immense talents, work ethic and desire to win.
To hear Belle, the feeling is mutual.
"He knows my approach; I know his approach. He has a take-charge attitude. He wants to win," Belle says. "He knows when we aren't playing up to our capabilities. You can rub him the wrong way and he's not afraid to scream and yell when he has to. That's pretty much the way he's been since I've been in ball with him. We go way back."
In subtle ways, Belle has shown some give this spring. This week's conversation was his first with beat reporters since he hit three home runs in a July 24 win over the Anaheim Angels. Last spring, Belle's budding relationship with local media was sacrificed for a overblown wire report over a self-directed clubhouse incident during a March exhibition game. He withdrew further during the season when reporters repeatedly ignored his request not to be approached before games.
Belle would like nothing more to improve his relationship with April and May. A career .296 hitter, Belle has a career average of .271 for April and last year hit only .277 in May. Of his 37 home runs and 36 doubles, Belle managed only nine home runs before June 4 and one double before May 29. Sluggish starts have denied him as many as two MVP seasons and last year muted a combustible second half in which he hit .326 with 19 home runs and 64 RBIs.