No hiding Belle

test goes public

Outfielder to try hip in right vs. Twins

he says range is limited

`2, maybe 3 steps, slower'

Club stays tight-lipped

Vero trip news to Belle

March 03, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The Orioles' six-week fact-finding mission regarding Albert Belle enters a more public phase this afternoon when the sore-hipped slugger starts in right field against the Minnesota Twins at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

Held out of yesterday's Grapefruit League opener in Jupiter, Belle acknowledged after a controlled scrimmage that he is experiencing diminished range in the outfield and has found it difficult to formulate a comfortable pre-game flexibility routine.

"Playing in the outfield, I feel two steps, maybe three steps, slower than normal," Belle said. "That concerns me, but I'm hoping it will get better the farther we go into camp."

Belle must make his case against a backdrop of growing but largely muted organizational skepticism that he can again resemble the player who owns 381 career home runs and had eight consecutive seasons of both 30 home runs and 100 RBIs before last season.

"It's a day-to-day thing," said Belle. "I'm not 100 percent. Everyone knows that."

The Orioles have been careful not to say much about Belle's situation since giving him medical clearance to practice on Feb. 20. Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift usually revels in discussing the organization's growing number of prospects, its infusion of young arms and the brighter future he feels is fast approaching. However, questions regarding Belle can ice any conversation.

"I'm always assessing," Thrift said yesterday, "but I'm not in the habit of assessing for everybody."

Manager Mike Hargrove reiterated after yesterday's 4-3 exhibition win that Belle will start in right field today. He also said Belle will be part of tomorrow's travel squad to Vero Beach for an exhibition against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Belle expressed slight surprise at the Vero Beach trip, a two-hour drive from the Orioles' facility.

"I've never gone to Vero before. I'm not sure why we would start now," Belle said. "I've always thought it more important to see teams like the Expos and Mets because we play them during the season. I haven't heard anything about Vero."

The Orioles' spring schedule cuts Belle little slack. A majority of road games are against National League clubs, meaning Belle must not only travel but also play the outfield.

Belle also has long been hostage to routine, but his hip condition complicates efforts to establish a minute-to-minute pattern each day.

"The hardest thing has been establishing a day-to-day routine," Belle said. "It's been tough coming up with a time to stretch and warm up, which makes it tougher to get ready. Today I came in, got dressed, took a couple of swings, and we were playing."

Belle's arthritic condition includes a loss of lubrication of the hip joint, which he attempts to address with medication. However, his reluctance to seek early treatment for the arthritic hip last season allowed for more grinding of the ball joint that fits into a socket. Doctors have told Belle what is supposed to look like a sphere more closely resembles a cone shape.

Club sources refer to its state as "bone-on-bone."

Belle was the only Orioles outfielder excused from yesterday's Grapefruit League opener in Jupiter. He instead stayed back to participate in a morning "B" game consisting mostly of minor-league players but important enough to be viewed by Thrift and Hargrove. Belle did not play right field but received an at-bat every half-inning as both teams' designated hitter. His at-bats against minor-league arms included a drive to the left-field warning track, two strikeouts and a double-play grounder. He did not hit safely.

"It's still too early to tell," Belle said. "Coming out of four straight intrasquad games, I'd say it feels fine. The last two days haven't exactly been a grind. The games will tell more."

Unable to mask a heightened limp in recent days, Belle had been hammering pitches in batting practice and four intrasquad games leading up to yesterday.

Yesterday, however, Belle was exposed to breaking pitches for the first time this spring. His timing against breaking pitches appeared rusty, no surprise to observers who suggested he has been "cheating" on fastballs.

Hargrove has said there is a need to know earlier rather than later about Belle. The Orioles project a 12-man pitching staff after the season's second week. If Belle is unable to at least serve as a DH on a daily basis, the manager's flexibility with a four-man bench is further compromised.

Thrift and Hargrove will meet several times this spring to discuss the composition of the team. Though no one speaks of when a determination will be made, it's likely that the club will reach at least an initial determination within the next two weeks.

Camp observers detect a "deterioration" in Belle's condition, theorizing that by compensating for his sore right hip he is experiencing soreness elsewhere.

"Just watch his face when he runs and tell me he's not in agony," said a team member.

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