Belle done except for the details

Hip damage confirmed but procedural issues abound before retiring

Insurance blocks closure

Belle and Angelos meet

union opposes `voluntary retirement'

March 08, 2001|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The Orioles and right fielder Albert Belle yesterday continued to plot the end game to the player's de facto injury-induced retirement, though sources familiar with the process say legal, procedural and insurance issues might delay an official announcement.

Belle was examined near the team's spring headquarters yesterday by team orthopedists Dr. Michael Jacobs and Dr. Charles Silberstein. The findings apparently confirm earlier results that Belle's degenerating right hip makes it impossible for him to continue his career. Jacobs and Silberstein returned to Baltimore last night and are scheduled to present the results to majority owner Peter Angelos today.

Now the matter becomes more logistical than medical as club officials seek a way to ensure that it will receive the maximum benefit from the insurance policy on the Belle contract - covering approximately $27 million of the remaining $39 million guaranteed the outfielder.

Though the team and Belle would like to reach full closure on the situation, it may be necessary to keep Belle on the 60-day disabled list for the remaining term of the contract, even though there appears no hope that he will be able to resume his potential Hall of Fame career. Club sources indicated that a settlement among the team, Belle and the insurer is possible, but no such arrangement has yet been seriously discussed.

The club and Belle's agent, Arn Tellem, have discussed the situation with the Major League Baseball Players Association, which has counseled Belle not to sign a "voluntary retirement" document. Such a document would allow the Orioles to control Belle's movement within the game indefinitely - even as a scout, instructor, coach, etc.

A Tuesday night conversation between Belle and Angelos made clear that the outfielder has abandoned hope of playing this season, and manager Mike Hargrove acknowledged yesterday that he will no longer approach Belle about his day-to-day availability.

"You certainly feel compassion if it does end up that Albert's career is over," said Hargrove. "You hate to see it end like this. Everybody's dealt a different hand and you play that hand. You'd like for him to go about his business. You see his desire and his work ethic. But so far it's not working."

While the end of Belle's career appears inevitable, accompanying logistics are more complicated. Players association assistant counsel Michael Weiner yesterday confirmed the union has been advising Belle and Tellem since before spring training.

"Our concerns are certainly with Albert's well-being. And it's fair to say it's not in a player's best interest to go on the voluntarily retired list," said Weiner.

One alternative would be for the Orioles to waive Belle.

"It's retirement in the normal sense of the word," said Weiner, "but the actual mechanism as it appears through the commissioner's office is a release."

However, such a move would not preclude him from pursuing a comeback with another team, such as that tried by Bo Jackson with the Chicago White Sox following hip surgery.

Belle's condition makes any comeback attempt highly unlikely, but the possibility would complicate an insurance settlement that pays roughly 70 percent of Belle's leftover salary from the five-year, $65 million deal he signed in December 1998 - including money deferred until after the contract expires in 2003.

Terms of the insurance policy call for the club to be indemnified as it pays Belle's contract. So far there have been no complications involving the insurance policy, but the Orioles have taken care since Belle's arrival in camp to document his inability to perform.

The Orioles are faced with several other alternatives in handling Belle's situation.

The club may classify him as "physically unable to perform" then place him on the 60-day disabled list once the season starts. The designation technically means Belle remains part of the club but does not count against the 40-man roster.

An important exception says players on the 60-day disabled list are counted against a team's 50-man roster when protected lists are filed prior to the Rule 5 draft. Pitchers Scott Erickson and Matt Riley required such protection last December. Every one of these players who are protected means another player - typically a valued prospect - must be exposed.

A more convenient arrangement might have the club outright Belle to one of its affiliates. Belle would have to consent to such a move and must first clear waivers, a formality. Another team could theoretically claim Belle but would immediately become liable for his contract.

Such a move would delete Belle from the major-league roster.

The Orioles could maintain such an arrangement for the remainder of Belle's contract, though they hope ongoing negotiations with Tellem and the union might avoid such roster manipulation.

An organization source said yesterday that any agreement must be "full-proof," withstanding scrutiny by both Belle and the team's insurer. Angelos' meeting today with his medical staff is one step in the process of documenting the severity of Belle's condition. "There is no reason to push it," said a source familiar with the situation.

Before being examined yesterday, Belle walked into camp long enough to speak briefly with vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift and team trainers.

Belle also loudly chastised director of public relations Bill Stetka, blaming him for media reports of his imminent retirement. Belle, who has not spoken with reporters who regularly cover the team since last weekend, informed Stetka that he would now handle his own media duties.

Sun staff writer Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.

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