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.
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.
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.
"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 think the process is playing itself out," said Tellem. "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."
Belle's signing reverberated for the entire length of his stay in Baltimore.
His arrival coincided with increased fan displeasure over the organization's direction, and Angelos last year classified the move as "a mistake." The Orioles have since sworn off granting blanket no-trade protection to players signed to multiyear contracts.
"I don't think this situation means that a club shouldn't be involved in a five-year contract at $11 million a year, especially the way contracts have evolved," Angelos said. "Our goal is to concentrate on young players and the continued growth of the minor-league system."
Ended is a borderline Hall of Fame career in which Belle amassed 381 home runs, 1,239 RBIs and 791 extra-base hits during a 12-year career tempestuous as it was productive.
Belle stands as one of only four players in the game's history to compile both 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in eight consecutive seasons. Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx are the others. He also ranked as the second-most prolific run producer of the 1990s, a talent so enticing that the Orioles disregarded his list of transgressions to sign him to a five-year, $65 million contract Dec. 1, 1998.
Neither of his two seasons with the Orioles proved fulfilling.