FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Acknowledging that "his career as an Oriole is effectively over," the Orioles last night officially classified right fielder Albert Belle as "totally disabled" and will place him on the 60-day disabled list today.
The move, hastily announced minutes before last night's exhibition game against the New York Mets, all but ends the eventful 2 1/2 -year relationship between the club and the highest-paid player in franchise history. Today's action serves as the first step in satisfying conditions laid out by an insurance policy indemnifying the Orioles for roughly 70 percent of the $39 million remaining on Belle's contract.
"The 60-day [disabled list] is the first step," said Bill Stetka, Orioles director of public relations. "There will be more to come down the road, but this is the first step.
"His career as an Oriole is effectively over."
The decision was made with Belle's consent after two team orthopedists, Dr. Michael Jacobs and Dr. Charles Silberstein, examined his arthritic right hip Wednesday. Once the game's most intimidating hitter, the 34-year-old Belle now finds it difficult to extricate himself from his car or to move after extended periods of standing or sitting. Belle was described as "unable to perform as a major-league baseball player" in an Orioles news release.
Most of Belle's teammates arrived at camp skeptical of his ability to return to right field but thinking he could remain an effective designated hitter. The hope was shattered when Belle showed up unable to sprint or slide. His tentative pursuit of fly balls and choppy steps signaled that his injury was no better than when he was forced to miss 20 games last September.
Outfielders Brady Anderson and Delino DeShields approached Belle early on about surrendering his comeback.
"I just told him, `This is about you now. Forget about baseball. There's a lot more to this than baseball,' " DeShields said.
Anderson observed Belle's grimace during base-running drills and insisted he pull himself from the exercises. Belle eventually exchanged the drills for riding a stationary bike.
A clubhouse attendant emptied Belle's locker during last night's Orioles exhibition game, leaving nothing but clothes hangers where Belle's jersey, several pairs of game pants, two gloves and numerous bats had been. Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said the move should have surprised no one and said he felt no need to address the issue with the club.
"Clearly, we believed the doctors' assessments of Albert in January and before then showed that he would not be able to continue," said majority owner Peter G. Angelos. "Typically, he wanted the opportunity to demonstrate that he could overcome this injury. That was an opportunity we afforded him, though we didn't believe he would be able to. As it turned out, that was the case. When Albert realized that he could not continue, to his credit, he acknowledged that and said he wouldn't play the game any longer."
Team officials announced the move via a five-sentence news release stating in part: "Belle has agreed that he is physically incapable of performing as a player and concurs with the findings of the doctors."
Syd Thrift, Orioles vice president of baseball operations, said the club's impression is Belle has no intention of ever playing again. However, the complexities of the insurance policy prevent the Orioles from giving Belle his outright release because of the remote chance he might reconsider.
"We can't release him without waiving certain obligations. He can't retire without waiving certain obligations," Stetka said.
Belle told Angelos of his decision Wednesday, but did not speak to teammates yesterday. It's unknown whether Belle intends to reappear at training camp.
Today's transaction is open-ended and conceivably could keep Belle on the team's roster through the 2003 season. Should the Orioles and their insurer agree on terms of reimbursement, Belle could eventually agree to go on the "voluntarily retired" list, severing his final tie to the club.
Club officials suggested last night that the insurance issue is not resolved. However, Angelos said: "There's no problem with the insurance. We need to comply in certain respects and they'll honor the contract."
Belle did not return phone calls last night. His agent, Arn Tellem, had not seen the team's news release last night and said he would comment later.
"I would say the chances of Albert playing again are remote," Tellem said.
Insurance covers about $27.3 million of Belle's remaining contract, which includes $9 million deferred with no interest. The money will be invested in the team's increased emphasis on player development, the owner said.
"Obviously, the funds that will be preserved will be committed to the further development of the minor-league system and the addition of a player if Syd and the baseball people think he is a good match for us," Angelos said. "The money not committed to Albert Belle remains baseball dollars."