Belle still hammering ball, but now it's on golf course

Sore-hipped slugger won't return, O's say

October 03, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Former Orioles outfielder Albert Belle always had an air of mystery about him, and that might be putting it kindly.

So, it should come as no surprise that, when a hip injury forced him into premature retirement, he would walk away and barely look back. Belle has not spoken to teammates since he departed the team's Fort Lauderdale, Fla., spring training facility and has kept a low profile during the course of the 2001 regular season.

He apparently is getting along fine. The day-to-day rigors of big-league baseball have been replaced by the day-to-day rigors of a life of competitive leisure. He plays golf almost every day and apparently is not severely limited by the degenerative condition in his right hip that sapped him of his lower body strength and, with it, his ability to continue his baseball career.

Reached by telephone recently near his Scottsdale, Ariz., home, he declined to be interviewed, but indicated he has accepted life without baseball and is enjoying the opportunity to work on his backswing instead of his batting stance.

He remains on the Orioles' 60-day disabled list because of the vagaries of the insurance policy that guarantees a large portion of the five-year, $65 million contract he signed with the team before the 1999 season. He could stay on the inactive roster for the remaining term of the contract, unless a deal is struck with the team and the insurers to provide a cash settlement. The team could seek an exemption to prevent Belle from counting toward its 40-man roster in the off-season, which would enable it to protect another player from being selected in the major-league (Rule 5) draft.

It is an unusual situation. The Orioles are entitled to be reimbursed for about 70 percent of the remaining $39 million guaranteed for the final three years of the deal (through 2003), but -- in the absence of an insurer-approved buyout -- Belle must remain on the long-term disabled list and receive his salary on the same payment schedule as if he were still an active player. The club is reimbursed by the insurer on the same schedule.

Angelos: `No chance' of return

Theoretically, he could return to spring training next year and declare himself fit to compete for a place on the 2002 club, but no one seriously believes he is entertaining the idea of a comeback, regardless of how good he might feel on the golf course.

"There is no chance of Albert coming back," Orioles owner Peter Angelos said. "Being able to play golf has nothing to do with being able to play baseball."

Orioles vice chairman and chief operating officer Joe Foss agreed, citing a preponderance of medical evidence that Belle's degenerative arthritic condition would never allow him to return.

"I think the severity of the disability is such that he is going to be unable to play at a competitive level in the major leagues at any time in the future," Foss said. "That's what we've been advised by orthopedists and others. As far as we're concerned, it's just history."

Belle arrived at spring training in February hoping that the hip soreness that hampered him during the 2000 season had subsided enough to allow him to return to his regular place in right field. He had gotten through the previous off-season without a serious setback in his rehabilitation program and had the designated hitter role as a fallback position if he was not physically able to play the outfield regularly.

Though he insisted after the 2000 season that the inflammation was the result of bursitis, there were whispers throughout the winter that the condition was much more serious, perhaps serious enough that Belle might eventually require a hip replacement.

Speculation over the severity turned out to be largely accurate. The pain returned as soon as he began regular baseball activities, and he quickly reached the painful conclusion that his career as one of baseball's most intimidating hitters was over.

Teammate Brady Anderson, who played next to Belle in the Orioles' outfield for two seasons, said he has no doubt Belle made the right decision and does not believe there is any scenario in which the 35-year-old former slugger would change his mind.

"I was convinced of that after I saw him take his first steps in spring training," Anderson said. "The man is tough as steel, and he couldn't do anything. I watched him not move in right field for a year."

Orioles pitcher Scott Erickson saw the same thing. Belle is healthy enough to play golf on a daily basis, but you don't have to run, slide or crash into an outfield fence at the country club. Golf rewards a consistent, relaxed swing. Baseball requires many sudden and violent movements.

"There is no comparison," Erickson said. "He couldn't move. He can play golf because he doesn't swing the club that hard."

Belle may not be known as the most likable guy in sports, but his sudden physical decline was a difficult thing for his friends and teammates to watch.

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