Subtraction of Belle would be net gain

March 08, 2001|By John Eisenberg

IF ALBERT Belle's ailing hip leads to his career's abrupt end in the next few days, the Orioles are assured not only of a positive spring, but of a positive 2001, period.

Even if they go on to lose 100 games, which they might, and even if more young arms turn up sore, Belle's departure would be such a corrective step, such a case of addition by subtraction, that a positive grade for 2001 could be assigned now, just a week into the Grapefruit League season.

Let the record show that it was a good year for the Orioles, no matter what else happens.

Yes, subtracting Belle from the club's shaky equation would mean that much.

That might sound strange, given that Belle was the club's most productive hitter, and it's certainly a mean-spirited position to take - anyone finding positives in any injury ordinarily should be ashamed.

But the circumstances of Belle's fall are hardly ordinary. Maybe you can summon some sympathy for him professionally if he is forced to the sidelines just as his career totals approach Hall of Fame levels, but you certainly can't feel sorry for him personally if he rides an odious behavioral track record into retirement and collects $39 million not to play.

He was a selfish churl who made his own bed of boos with 11 years of boorish, off-putting behavior, forfeiting any chance of his engendering more than token sympathy or goodwill now.

Think that's just typecasting from the media he rudely disdained? Maybe you never noticed the way he made sure to drop his batting helmet on the field after almost every out he made, forcing batboys to leave the dugout and clean up after him - a small act that spoke volumes.

He worked hard at his hitting, as hard as anyone, and his teammates didn't seem to mind him, not that he was any kind of a leader. But defense obviously wasn't important to him, and his occasional jogs to first were inexcusable. That's what you wanted from the highest-paid player in franchise history?

The best thing you can say about Belle's two years as an Oriole is that he played hurt for as long as he could, obviously contributing to his declining numbers. But playing hurt, if at all possible, is the least a guy making $13 million a year should do.

Frankly, his pending departure is such good news for the Orioles and their fans that gauging the moral correctness of any reaction to his bad luck is pointless.

The fans will still have to put up with the organization's dubious decision-making under owner Peter Angelos, but at least they'll no longer have to suffer through being forced to root for the game's least popular player. Angelos shoved that one down their throats, just one of the reasons the club's popularity has suffered.

Belle instantly became the face of the Orioles after he signed the five-year, $65 million contract Angelos almost immediately regretted in December 1998, and even if the club's face becomes bland at best now with him out of the picture, that's easier to take.

As long as Belle was in uniform, the club could only dream about re-establishing any semblance of a feel-good vibe around town.

Belle said when he signed that he'd always wanted to play for the Orioles, but all he did for the organization was use it to become the game's highest-paid player for a brief period.

Otherwise, he embarrassed the club with his effort in the Cuba game at Camden Yards, insisted on playing right field even when it was clear his defense was subpar, asked for a trade, got caught giving fans an obscene gesture and almost came to blows with then-manager Ray Miller in the dugout.

Let's just say he won't make the Orioles Hall of Fame.

It's true his departure dims the Orioles' prospects for 2001, quite a statement as the prospects already are dim enough. Ready for Delino DeShields batting third, David Segui fourth and Cal Ripken fifth?

Still, the club clearly is better off without Belle as it tries, however vainly, to pull out of its three-year losing streak. Any money saved can be spent more wisely, on others more deserving. And even if Belle were healthy and putting up his usual numbers, the club had already lost for two years with him batting cleanup, and it was going to lose for at least another year and probably longer. Why put up with a headache in such low risk-reward conditions?

And of course, putting up with him as a diminished, one-dimensional slugger was a total negative for the club, a worst-case scenario come to life. There was no reason for manager Mike Hargrove not to give Belle's at-bats to Chris Richard or anyone else who could play the outfield more adeptly and possibly help the club a couple of years down the road. Hargrove will be free to do that, more in control of his club, if Belle is gone.

Let's make sure and give him credit for the entire text of his career. He was one of the game's best hitters for many years, and the shame is he may have had a more appealing side to his personality - he played chess in the clubhouse and submitted poems and light-hearted editorials to The Sun, and exchanging e-mails with an old print critic from Cleveland last winter, he responded to a "no comment" by writing "you're stealing my good lines."

But if he was, in fact, not as bad as advertised, he never gave anyone a chance to see the other side. Thus, the grim news of his injury has fans in Baltimore scheduling a parade.

What goes around, comes around.

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