Belle's quiet April causes no uproar

Inside the Orioles

Could typical stretch run lead to a belated MVP?

May 07, 2000|By Joe Strauss | By Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Something strange happened this April between Albert Belle and the Orioles, something that has rarely happened in the right fielder's prolific, oft-scrutinized career.

While Belle has struggled early - nothing new there, as fans in Cleveland, Chicago and Charm City will attest - the Orioles have neither taken off nor collapsed miserably. Their 14-10 April record, which earned them a second-place finish to the month, has smoothed some of the jagged edge created by consecutive fourth-place finishes. Belle, meanwhile, was less productive this April than last, when his four home runs and 14 RBIs typified the Orioles' 6-16start and quick dismissal from contender status. This April he endured 21 games without a home run, the third-longest drought of his career, while homering twice with 13 RBIs.

Belle has struggled with timing all spring and all season. Until Wednesday's three hits and first home run since April7, he had given little reason to expect a breakout. Despite entering June with nine home runs and 31 RBIs, Belle rallied for 28 home runs and 86 RBIs in the summer months last year. Over an entire season, those numbers project to 42 home runs and 129 RBIs. As is, he finished 20th in the major leagues in home runs (37) and RBIs (117).

Belle has never been considered the guy who moves the pile but rather the one on top of it. Partly because of a personality often interpreted as obsessive, his numbers often have been viewed as a personal achievement rather than a powerful team contribution.

His sluggish starts in Cleveland came while the Indians were annihilating the rest of the flimsy American League Central. When Belle began to warm in June, the division race was done.

Backers of then-Boston Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn successfully used Belle's tardy start as a campaign issue during the 1995 Most Valuable Player race. Vaughn, considered the heart, soul and best quote of an overachieving Red Sox team, outpolled Belle despite less impressive numbers. (Vaughn hit. 300with 39homers and a league-leading 126RBIs; Belle batted .317with 50home runs and 52doubles in 143games, scored a league-high 121runs and tied Vaughn's 126RBIs.)

Vaughn backers cite their man's better numbers at that season's July 31 trading deadline. Belle averaged better than an RBI a game in the second half.

Two years ago with the Chicago White Sox, Belle produced a 200-hit season, 49home runs and 152RBIs while batting .328. He entered September with a long shot to win the Triple Crown, yet finished eighth in MVP balloting. Detractors cited his virtual absence during the White Sox's calamitous first half while minimizing his contributions during a second half in which the White Sox produced the league's second-best record.

To say Belle remembers the slights is an understatement.

How else to explain the absence of an MVP for one of only fourplayers to compile at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in eight consecutive seasons, or the player who led all major-league hitters with 1,099 RBIs during the 1990s?

Barely a month after signing his five-year, $65 million deal with the Orioles, Belle was asked if he felt his career warranted an MVP.

"At least one," he replied.

The answer likely lies within a mix of perception and timing. For a player with such monstrous numbers, he has never been identified as the engine behind his team's success.

By waiting on Belle with neither a breakout nor a collapse, the Orioles have offered him a chance to become identified with an overachieving season.

Unlike Cleveland, where Kenny Lofton was recognized as a dominant force, Belle is not surrounded by players prone to producing MVP-type numbers. Nor is he exiled (yet) on a team out of contention. A strong Belle season combined with the Orioles remaining at least a wild-card contender into September could produce interesting chemistry.

Belle was seen by many as part of the malaise that doomed former Orioles manager Ray Miller. His refusal to take on-field batting practice for the season's final 3 1/2 months was cited as evidence of a clubhouse beyond control.

For Mike Hargrove, his first professional and major-league manager, Belle has adopted a more relaxed attitude. He and hitting coach Terry Crowley have an improved relationship. Once adamantly opposed to serving as designated hitter, Belle did so three times in a four-game span. (Until Will Clark's hamstring pull, the move allowed Hargrove greater maneuverability late in games.)

Belle's defensive effort has appeared to waver little during this April's offensive frustrations, a claim that couldn't be made last April and May as he bristled at a new position.

The new Belle sometimes wears a smile and seems more comfortable within his surroundings. He has also found a team willing to wait for him to carry it when it counts.

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