O's release `inevitable' for Belle

Hip pain forces him to sit out second start

exam possible today

Orioles hold little hope

Hargrove: `If he can't run, he's a liability'

March 05, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Continued hip pain caused Orioles right fielder Albert Belle to be scratched from a second consecutive exhibition start yesterday, giving rise to what one club source described as a "sense of inevitability" that the degenerative condition could bring his imminent retirement or release.

Manager Mike Hargrove admitted after learning of Belle's continued discomfort that he cannot now project Belle as part of the team on Opening Day. "Given the events of yesterday and today ... it would be difficult to project Albert on our 25-man roster right now," Hargrove said.

Belle is scheduled to play in today's exhibition against the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie. However, it is just as likely that he may seek an examination by team orthopedic specialist Dr. Michael Jacobs, who was at the team's minor-league facility in Sarasota yesterday.

"I don't think [Belle being examined] is a bad idea," said Hargrove.

Whatever cautious optimism followed Belle into camp has been replaced by a grim acknowledgment of his obvious and growing limitations.

Belle scratched himself from Saturday's home game against the Minnesota Twins about 50 minutes before the first pitch. He then reported to the team's clubhouse at Fort Lauderdale Stadium for treatment early yesterday morning. Hargrove learned quickly that Belle remained in too much pain to make a two-hour drive to Vero Beach then play in the outfield against the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Few, including Hargrove, say they believe there is much chance for significant improvement in the outfielder's condition. Belle entered camp three weeks ago insisting he would allow his body to dictate his course. So far, he's received no encouragement.

"The thing is, this isn't an ordinary injury where's it's a muscle that's hurt and you bring him back slowly and let it heal," Hargrove said. "This is a hip that's bone on bone. There is nothing in there to heal."

Less than a week remains before Orioles vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift seeks his first round of evaluations from Hargrove and his coaches in order to make initial roster cuts. The club hopes by then to also have a reading on Belle.

"I would think we'd like to have a grip on what it is we're dealing with regarding Albert no later than mid-spring training," Hargrove said. "We need to have a pretty clear idea of whether this is going to work or not."

Hargrove rejected the notion of exclusively using Belle this spring as a designated hitter because of the false reading it might provide.

"What do you do, take one step forward and 15 back and get caught in a crack later on?" Hargrove asked rhetorically. "Is that going to make Albert more ready to play the season than just going out to play? I don't think so. I just think it makes it take more time to get an answer. I don't think that's productive for Albert and I don't think that's productive for the team."

The Orioles still owe Belle $39 million over the final three years of a five-year, $65 million deal signed in December 1998. However, because Belle's contract is insured, the Orioles are partly indemnified under those circumstances.

Pressed as to whether Belle could be useful as a designated hitter by restricting himself to riding a stationary bike rather than running, Hargrove said, "You get a guy who can DH, ride a bike and play three times a week. What does that get you?"

Belle declined to comment about his condition yesterday, reminding reporters, "I talked to you guys [Saturday]." He did speak briefly with Thrift at about 9 a.m. before leaving camp. Belle later returned for a second round of treatment. Thrift met with Hargrove in the manager's office before accompanying him to the team's exhibition game in Vero Beach.

Thrift refused to characterize his conversation with Belle but acknowledged that the right fielder seemed despondent over his deteriorating condition. Like Hargrove, Thrift offered little hope for Belle serving exclusively as the team's designated hitter.

"I think with the position of designated hitter you still have certain physical requirements you have to do to participate on a winning team," Thrift said after speaking with Belle. "You have to perform certain activities to have that role. It's not a fallback position that anybody can walk up to the plate and hit a baseball.

"It's not like playing Country Roundcat where you hit the ball, run to first and run home. This is major-league baseball."

The nature of his condition does not lend itself to reversals. Belle has yet to sprint or slide. He labored after balls while playing right field in a series of intrasquad games and grimaced when running out ground balls.

The Orioles now attempt to diplomatically handle a painfully blunt question: If Belle's chronic condition has only worsened after two weeks in camp, what reason is there to believe it will improve while attempting to play every day during the final three weeks?

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