The Orioles and free agent Albert Belle will complete a marriage of convenience today when the former Chicago White Sox left fielder announces he has agreed to a club-record, five-year, $65 million contract.
Threatened with the loss of almost half of their offense from last season, the Orioles have regained momentum by signing a productive, albeit controversial player capable of supplying the right-handed power presence they've desperately sought.
While the Orioles have considered a deal with Belle imminent for days, he apparently offered Chicago a final chance to meet the Orioles' offer yesterday, but was rejected by White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.
Belle's brother and publicist, Terry, then phoned White Sox beat writers, encouraging them to attend today's news conference in Baltimore.
Neither party was the other's first choice; however, circumstances brought them together in the last week. The Orioles needed offense, and Belle, spurned by the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox as well as the White Sox, needed a well-monied contender.
Belle arrived last night with his agent, Arn Tellem, and his brother. A news conference is expected around noon today.
Tellem initiated negotiations with the Orioles more than two weeks ago by contacting general manager Frank Wren. At the time, the Orioles expressed only tepid interest because of their pursuit of free-agent outfielder Brian Jordan. When Jordan rejected a five-year, $40 million offer for an identical bid from the Atlanta Braves, the Orioles quickly dispensed with their aversion to awarding any player $10 million per season. Belle's deal is more than double the previous franchise record -- a five-year, $32 million deal given pitcher Scott Erickson last May.
The Orioles -- who have lost free agents Eric Davis and Roberto Alomar -- regain significant offensive credibility with Belle, the only American League player last season to rank among the top three in home runs (49), RBIs (152) and average (.328).
"He's probably the most dominant hitter in the major leagues. To be able to put a guy like that in the middle of the lineup moves you way ahead," said Wren.
Belle has been suspended six times during his nine-year career, admitted to suffering about $300,000 in gambling debts and has been found in possession of a corked bat. Besides possibly costing him a pair of MVP awards, the controversies have helped obscure an unswerving work ethic.
After helping the Indians rise to dominance in the AL Central, Belle signed a five-year, $55 million contract with the White Sox before the 1997 season. The deal included a provision that allowed Belle a window to pursue free agency if he fell from among the game's three highest-paid players. The clause was triggered last season, and Belle had until tomorrow to sign with another team or return to Chicago.
Terry Belle said it was a "mutual decision" for his brother to leave a situation that appeared to agree with him. Belle and manager Jerry Manuel established a firm relationship. Belle also received a wide berth from the Chicago media.
"He really liked it there," said Terry Belle. "He felt they were only one or two pitchers away. But Albert has to look for stability. The Orioles are a winning organization."
The Orioles did not include the escalator clause in Belle's contract, according to a source, and did not feel compelled to insert additional language regarding conduct.
The standard player contract addresses conduct detrimental to the club. "There's nothing different in that respect between this contract and Cal Ripken's contract," said a source familiar with the deal.
Pub Date: 12/01/98