Belle hopeful he'll be back in right this year

Oriole encouraged by rehab on hip, but some pain persists

FanFest attracts 10,000 Baseball

January 14, 2001|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

While conceding that his right leg probably won't return to "normal," Albert Belle nonetheless expects to be a regular presence in the Orioles' lineup next season, with most of his starts coming in right field.

But that's about as far into the future as he will venture. Arthritis in his hip joint, which caused Belle to miss 20 games in September, also prevents him from speaking with any certainty about his remaining years in baseball.

"I pretty much take it day-by-day. Some days it feels great, and some days it doesn't," Belle said during a short break between autograph and photo sessions at yesterday's FanFest at the Baltimore Convention Center.

"As long as I'm keeping [the hip] strong, then I have a chance of being healthy. Once I slip and don't keep it strong, there's a chance I could ruin it and not play again."

Belle, 34, noted the improvement from four months ago when he labored to get up the first base line and walked with a pronounced limp. The plane ride from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., caused some stiffness in the area, "but as long as I'm active and moving around, I'm fine," he said. "Once I become idle and sit around, it gets a little sore on me."

Inflammation in the hip limited Belle to 141 games last summer, his lowest totals in a non-strike-shortened season since 1991. His consecutive-games streak ended at 232 when he asked out of the lineup before an Aug. 27 game in Tampa - his first concession to an injury that prohibited him from driving the ball with the same authority that had produced eight straight seasons with at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs. He batted .281 with 23 homers and 103 RBIs.

"My leg was completely weak compared to my left one," he said. "I've built a lot of strength back up. Rehab has been great."

Belle works with a physical therapist in Scottsdale on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, with exercises designed to strengthen the hip and recover the flexibility that he's lost. He's performing aerobics and some low-impact agility drills and riding a stationary bike, but he hasn't begun any baseball-related activities.

"It's been a slow, gradual process. The stuff I go through on those days, there's no way I could do that every day. It would kill my leg," he said.

"My leg may never be 100 percent of what it used to be and could be, but there are some areas around the hip that I've definitely strengthened, which before were completely weak, so that's an improvement. I've had to strengthen different muscles that I've never thought about working on before."

Belle began rehabbing his hip on Oct. 15 and endured soreness the first two weeks that lessened over time. "I still can't really push it like I want to, but we've definitely picked up the intensity of the workouts," he said.

His routine will continue into spring training, when he'll probably cut back on some of the exercises. Belle normally doesn't pick up a bat until reporting to camp, but said he'll begin swinging one on Feb. 1.

Manager Mike Hargrove said he regards Belle as the club's right fielder unless his physical condition won't allow it. Once fiercely opposed to serving as the designated hitter, Belle now sees the wisdom in being removed from the field on occasion, especially for a day game after a night game.

"Nothing's going to happen until I put my hip through baseball conditions," he said. "I know when I came back in September, my hip didn't have the strength to play in the outfield. That's why I ended up DH-ing. But my leg's a lot stronger."

Even so, he must deal with a condition that will remain with him beyond retirement. "The reason the arthritis is there is just from the wear and tear from sliding on it, bouncing on it, the torque on the swing. It's just worn down over the years. But we know what to work on to get it strong and to keep it from getting worse," he said.

"I would have liked to play about 20 years in the big leagues, but that's not going to happen. I'm 34 years old. That's pretty young to have arthritis. I figured maybe later on down the line, maybe when I was 40 or so, but not this early."

Surgery isn't an option at this time, and Belle said his condition isn't nearly as serious as the hip injury that ended Bo Jackson's football career and eventually forced him out of baseball. "His was probably the worst case ever. We're not even remotely close to that," Belle said. "That's the great thing about it. Once my career is over, I'll be able to do normal stuff and have a normal life."

The lines for Belle yesterday were among the longest at FanFest, which attracted an estimated crowd of 10,000 to the Convention Center. The change to a one-day format was met favorably, with people continuing to file in late in the afternoon.

"That's a strong total. We're enthused," said club spokesman Bill Stetka.

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