Questions intensify on Belle's condition

Hip forces Oriole to miss game, may be career-threatening

March 04, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Albert Belle's attempt at extending his career despite a degenerative right hip condition took an ominous turn yesterday when acute pain forced the Orioles' right fielder to miss an exhibition game against the Minnesota Twins.

The setback not only "surprised" manager Mike Hargrove but also heightened questions about whether the focal point of the Orioles' lineup retains enough flexibility and durability to withstand a 162-game schedule. The issue now causes the club to no longer project Belle as its everyday right fielder and in some quarters has even given rise to a sense of inevitability that his career is over.

"I'm kind of disappointed over where I am," said Belle, dressed in a T-shirt and sweat pants shortly after the start of the Orioles' 5-4 win over the Twins.

"I thought maybe after the first week I would feel some normal soreness. After the second week there would be some improvement. But it's been going the other way, so I'm not happy with that."

Belle said he hoped to play as scheduled in today's exhibition against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Vero Beach but held out the possibility that he may instead seek an examination by team orthopedic Dr. Michael Jacobs if the pain persisted.

"We've got to find out sooner rather than later," Hargrove said. "I don't want to be cold-hearted about it, but there comes a point in time when we have to put a ballclub together."

The Orioles hope to make a determination within two weeks about Belle's status. That time frame may be affected by Belle's self-evaluation.

"I was going to have to test it pretty early. It's not like I can come in, play one day, take one day off, then play the next day, because we don't have that luxury during the season," Belle said. "I would have liked to test it out pretty early and see what happens, but it hasn't worked out like that."

The Orioles have noticed Belle's limitations far more than any improvements over last September, when he missed more than two weeks because of inflammation of the bursa sac near his right hip pointer. He has yet to demonstrate any first-step explosiveness and has admitted being sore after extended periods of standing in the outfield.

Hargrove has excused him from sliding and some running. The hip soreness has made Belle's stride choppy, while his pronounced limp has returned. A club source indicated last week that compensating for the hip has begun to affect his leg and knees as well.

"I've been doing pretty much everything I could possibly do. If the leg doesn't respond, I'm pretty much limited in what I can do," Belle said.

Belle swung the bat impressively earlier in camp, but he experienced pain while taking pre-game batting practice yesterday. Hargrove said he heard of Belle's discomfort "through the rumor mill," approached the player and received Belle's confirmation. Chris Richard started in Belle's place.

Hargrove said he was "surprised but not shocked" that Belle could not play. He had heard that Belle was experiencing increased discomfort the previous three days, but he also noted Belle did not seek treatment from trainers during that time.

The Orioles had set an arduous schedule for Belle. He was the only outfielder scheduled to play in the first three exhibition games. Combined with his appearance in four intrasquad games earlier in the week and a Friday "B" game, Belle would have played eight consecutive days. Belle yesterday cited Friday's "B" game in which he served as a designated hitter for both teams as contributing to his soreness.

"What killed me was the workout yesterday," Belle said. "I don't mind playing a 9:30 `B' game or whatever. But I'm not getting the proper amount of workout time. I pretty much stretched, threw and started playing. I'd have liked to have done a little bit more. But we didn't."

Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift said yesterday that he would withhold comment to be "fair" to Belle. Regardless of the cleanup hitter's availability, Thrift reiterated that the club would not pursue a veteran hitter to replace him. The Dodgers are attempting to deal disgruntled outfielder Gary Sheffield, who has demanded the club renegotiate his contract.

Hargrove yesterday spoke bluntly of Belle's prospects for returning.

"The thing about this injury - it's bone on bone - I don't know what makes it better," Hargrove said. "He had all off-season to rest it and rehab. He did that and worked very hard at it. But we're two weeks into camp, he didn't make the trip yesterday as a courtesy, and can't play today because of pain in the hip. Will it get better? I don't know. I would imagine not."

Belle stopped short of saying yesterday's incident moved him closer to retirement, but he has confided to some within the team his frustration over his hip's lack of improvement.

For its part, the club has avoided any appearance of pressuring Belle to retire.

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