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In his role on field, Belle no bad actor


As feel-good stories go, it's not exactly, "Santa Claus is coming to town."

He sees you trick-or-treating.

He snarls at every media snake.

He knows how to cork a bat or two.

So you better steer clear, for the Orioles' sake!

Who would have believed it?

Charm City is now Belle-timore.

And the Orioles' best player is Mr. Grinch.

In 1979, the late Edward Bennett Williams bought the franchise for $12 million. Two decades later, the Orioles will pay Belle $13 million a year.

Welcome, Prince Albert!

Bring your mighty scepter, and leave the rest of your baggage home.

Belle isn't a model citizen, but he's a model player. If he avoids trouble, he will be a $65 million bargain.

Of course, if baseball people believed he would avoid trouble, more than one team would have bid on him, don't you think?

The Chicago White Sox didn't want him. The Boston Red Sox didn't want him. No one but the Orioles wanted him, and the Orioles were scrambling.

The signing of Belle is a huge gamble, perhaps a huge mistake, a reflection of everything that is wrong with this once-proud franchise.

But for all Belle's, uh, quirks, one truth is inescapable.

The man can play.

"When he puts on a baseball uniform, there's no B.S. He goes 100 percent all the time," said Ed Farmer, the Chicago White Sox broadcaster, former major-league pitcher and Orioles scout from to '90.

"He won't take a day off. You have to absolutely coerce him into taking a DH role. You've got both iron men once you sign him. He is probably one of the most intense competitors I've ever seen."

And as a hitter?

"He doesn't give up an at-bat," Farmer said. "You make a mistake, he doesn't miss it. At Camden Yards, he might hit 75 home runs. Our ballpark cheated him out of at least 15 last year, and he hit 49. So that would have been 64.

"When he gets in the zone, he can put on the entire Oriole team on his back and carry them for a month or two. That's what he did for us last year. We didn't have Frank [Thomas] hit the way he had in the past. They didn't want to pitch to Belle, and he still killed them."

Belle, 32, leads the majors in home runs and RBIs the past eight seasons. He owns a higher career slugging percentage than Mark McGwire. He hit .387 with 31 homers and 86 RBIs last season -- after the All-Star break.

Love him or loathe him, he will make the Orioles compelling, in the way that great horror movies are compelling. Still, he deserves to be judged solely on his performance, as long as he acts responsibly on and off the field.

For $65 million, you might expect leadership, marketing potential and tireless community service, but let's not kid ourselves. With Belle, what you see is what you get. And what you see is a guy who plays hard every day.

"If the fans are coming to see a politician, they ain't going to get it," Farmer said. "He's going to be a person they'll want to embrace. They'll do the embracing. But he ain't going to do no hugging."

Who needs it? The only way to tolerate pro sports today is to distance yourself emotionally. Orioles fans booed Belle in the '96 Division Series, and Cleveland fans booed Roberto Alomar. Naturally, all that will reverse now.

Eddie Murray shared Belle's desire for privacy, and Orioles fans loved him. Then again, that comparison might not be valid. Murray's most controversial act -- his refusal to speak to the media -- is the least of Belle's problems.

The good news is, Belle was on mostly good behavior in his two seasons with the White Sox. Not counting his suspensions -- the last of which was June 21, 1996 -- he has missed only two games in the past five years.

Take a day off?

Sometimes, he won't even take first base.

"Not when he's zoned in," Farmer said. "[Dave] Burba hit him last year. The ball glanced off his shoulder and hit him in the chin. And he refused to go to first. Then he hit a shot into the gap in left-center for a double."

Controlled fury.

It will be a welcome sight at Camden Yards.

"He's very quiet before games," Farmer said. "He likes to play cards with a select group or play Nintendo. If he makes out or hits a home run, whenever he gets the chance, he'll write it down in his little book -- who's pitching, what the count is, what the situation is. Nothing is left to chance."

What about his twin brother, Terry, his supposed better half?

"If he had Terry's personality, maybe he wouldn't be the player he is," Farmer said. "Terry is just a great guy. Albert never lets his guard down. This is only conjecture on my part, but I think that he thinks that if he lets his guard down, he's not going to perform as well."

And make no mistake, Belle will perform. He has hit 321 career homers, and likely will reach 500 as an Oriole. He's also a doubles machine, and, even in an off-year, he's good for 100 RBIs.

Orioles coaches noted his improvement in left field last season, and Farmer said, "He's a better outfielder than everybody thinks." Belle probably is better suited to play the smaller right field at Camden Yards, especially if the Orioles re-sign B.J. Surhoff. But who's going to ask him to move?

That should be the least of the Orioles' problems.

Hold your breath, Belle-timore.

Mr. Grinch is coming to town.

Pub Date: 12/01/98

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