Belle: `I need miracle' to play

Renewed hip pain frustrates O's slugger

decision appears near

March 06, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Hobbled Orioles right fielder Albert Belle admitted yesterday that because of renewed pain in his right hip he needs "a miracle" to extend his career. Meanwhile, sources familiar with the situation believe he is within a week of formally announcing his decision not to play at least this season.

"At this stage, I need a miracle," Belle told USA Today after failing to accompany the team to its exhibition game in Port St. Lucie against the New York Mets.

The scratch was Belle's third from the lineup in as many days. He has yet to appear in a full-squad exhibition game this spring. Though manager Mike Hargrove said he intends to again list Belle in the lineup today, the outfielder's admission appears to state the contrary.

Belle had no comment for reporters following a second round of treatment yesterday but granted an interview to a USA Today reporter while riding a stationary bike.

"The situation now is that my leg isn't as healthy as I want it to be," Belle told the paper. "There are some concerns and there's been greater concerns the last two days.

"The leg isn't getting stronger, as I thought it would at this stage of spring training."

Belle has admitted to increased pain for several days since appearing as a designated hitter in a Friday "B" game. He complained about receiving inadequate time to stretch before appearing in the 9:30 a.m. controlled scrimmage. He failed to hit safely while being a designated hitter for both sides and afterward expressed surprise at being scheduled for a two-hour road trip to a Sunday exhibition in Vero Beach.

The Orioles do not dispute Belle's assessment. Manager Mike Hargrove offered a blunt assessment of Belle's condition Sunday, describing the right fielder as a "liability" if unable to run.

The most complicated element preceding any announcement is a financial one.

Belle is due $39 million over the next three seasons but would forfeit his claim should he retire without medical dispensation. The Orioles can't waive Belle without forfeiting their claim to an insurance policy, which reportedly covers 70 percent of his remaining contract. Should Belle, 34, attempt to resume his career, it may jeopardize any insurance settlement. Since Belle arrived in camp, the Orioles have documented his movements with video and print accounts.

So far, Belle has not scheduled an examination by team orthopedic specialist Dr. Michael Jacobs. However, Belle would likely seek out either Towson orthopedist Dr. Charles Silberstein or Birmingham, Ala., orthopedist Dr. James Andrews for an opinion before galvanizing his decision not to play.

Silberstein examined Belle in January; Belle was referred to Andrews by former two-sport star Bo Jackson last September. Belle was then diagnosed with inflammation of the bursa sac near his right hip pointer, a symptom of an arthritic hip.

Belle immersed himself in an off-season rehab program that allowed him to arrive at spring training in marginally better condition. Team doctors gave him medical clearance - a virtual formality except in cases where pulmonary or cardiac irregularities are discovered - but Belle's condition has steadily deteriorated since.

"No one knows how much pain he's been in the last year," said Belle's agent, Arn Tellem. "It's been excruciating for him."

Belle has yet to sprint or slide since arriving at camp Feb. 17. Observers, including Hargrove, noted Belle's diminishing skills even before he scratched himself from Saturday's start.

Belle said during an interview last month that if the hip pain approached what he endured last September, he would not attempt to play. Yesterday, while referring to his career in the past tense, he suggested that his pain is approaching that threshold.

"I knew I wasn't going to play this game forever," Belle told the paper. "I felt in October and November that if my leg doesn't improve, I wouldn't be able to play, plain and simple. That's something I had to think about the whole off-season. I was hoping I'd never get to that point, but it has."

Approached by one local reporter following his treatment, Belle had little to say except, "You're starting to push it now. ... You're pushing it."

Belle's admission comes one day after Hargrove provided a pessimistic summary of his cleanup hitter's condition. "The thing is, this isn't an ordinary injury where 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."

The Orioles started Melvin Mora in right field yesterday but project either Brady Anderson or Chris Richard as the most likely contingency in Belle's absence.

Belle's condition hasn't prevented the Orioles and Oakland A's from resuming trade discussions centering on left fielder Delino DeShields and A's right-handed starting pitcher Omar Olivares. Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift downplayed the possibility of the club acquiring a hitter in Belle's absence but has long been intrigued by Olivares, the A's projected fifth starter.

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