FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Long one of the game's most feared hitters now hobbled by a brittle right hip, Orioles right fielder and cleanup hitter Albert Belle is expected to announce his retirement as early as today pending an examination by a team orthopedic doctor, say club and industry sources.
Belle's apparent decision comes after he was unable to parlay a four-month exercise program designed to strengthen his arthritic right hip into a single exhibition appearance. For a fourth straight game, manager Mike Hargrove scratched Belle from yesterday's lineup. But unlike the previous three days, Belle left Fort Lauderdale Stadium and did not return for a second round of treatment.
Team orthopedist Dr. Michael Jacobs was to travel from the Orioles' minor-league complex in Sarasota to perform the examination of Belle's hip, which has caused him increasing pain since he arrived in camp less than three weeks ago. The exam is considered little more than a formality since team doctors have consistently told Belle his condition is degenerative and not subject to improvement.
Asked yesterday whether he expected an imminent resolution, Hargrove said, "We're further down that road than we were two days ago ... much further down that road."
An agreement between majority owner Peter Angelos and Belle's agent, Arn Tellem, will satisfy the conditions of an insurance policy that indemnifies the Orioles for 70 percent of Belle's remaining salary if he is physically unable to perform, according to sources familiar with the situation. Belle, 34, is guaranteed $39 million covering the final three years of a franchise-record, five-year, $65 million deal signed in December 1998.
Tellem denied last night that Belle had reached a decision. Instead, Tellem said his client will weigh whatever information he receives from Jacobs and any other doctors they might seek out.
"We'll know more after Albert sees the doctors. That's when things will clarify themselves," said Tellem. "Until then, nothing is certain. It's a medical question now."
Jacobs has supervised Belle's treatment since the player admitted experiencing constant, sometimes excruciating, leg and hip pain last summer. It was Jacobs who first examined Belle and who administered the orthopedic portion of his physical on Feb. 20. Though Belle's condition was judged to be slightly improved over last year, he was reminded that the degenerative condition wouldn't disappear.
Belle said upon entering camp that he would retire rather than experience pain similar to what he endured late last August. After confiding to several team members that he was reaching that stage, Belle Monday told USA Today that he needed "a miracle" to continue his potential Hall of Fame career. He also spoke of his career in the past tense and discussed his life after baseball.
Belle left camp yesterday without addressing reporters but told a public relations official he might soon have more to say.
The Orioles admitted surprise at the finality of Belle's recently published comments. Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift said he hoped to speak with the outfielder but missed Belle as he left camp.
"I think we have to find out exactly what he means by all this," Thrift said. "We need to have a conversation with Albert."
When approached yesterday by Hargrove, Belle admitted his condition hadn't improved overnight.
"It's hard to look at this as a rehabilitation process," Hargrove said before yesterday's 7-6 exhibition win made his Orioles 5-0. "You have to draw the distinction. It's not necessarily a rehab process. He rehabilitated his hip all winter. He worked very hard at it. If he takes a week off it'll be better, then he'll play two days and be back to where he is right now."
Added Thrift: "We've played four games and he hasn't been able to play in four games. That speaks for itself."
Depending on what doctors tell him, Belle might concede his career is over or attempt to use this season to buiid up the area around his hip then return for another try next spring.
Regardless of his decision, Belle will receive the balance of his guaranteed contract as the Orioles already acknowledge his condition has made it impossible for him to perform. The Orioles' insurance policy on Belle is a more complicated matter. The club is to be paid in installments and any attempt at a comeback would freeze the reimbursements.
Thrift acknowledged yesterday that the issue is now being handled by Angelos, who has had numerous conversations with Tellem. Thrift, Hargrove and Angelos have spoken recently via conference call while Angelos continues to receive daily updates about Belle's condition. The Orioles have compiled copious video and print accounts of Belle's labored movements to buttress their belief that he is incapable of playing.
Thrift said he expects a decision from Belle "as soon as he thinks it's appropriate. ... It may be a lot sooner than later."
On Sunday, Hargrove said Belle would be a "liability" in his current condition, which has prevented him from sliding and sprinting.
Belle, 34, has served as a metaphor for the Orioles since signing that five-year, $65 million contract in December 1998 that made him the highest-paid player in franchise history. His early struggles in 1999 and last season's injuries coincided with the team's rapid fall from contention and his run-ins with media, fans and manager Ray Miller typified a time in which the Orioles suffered drops in attendance as well as a third consecutive fourth-place season.
Belle's anticipated departure coincides with an organizational move away from long-term contracts with no-trade provisions.
Despite a record June, Belle limped to a .281 average and career-low 23 home runs last season, breaking an eight-year run in which he had homered at least 30 times while amassing 100 RBIs.