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Vilified one day, cheered the next Orioles: With a change of uniform and glowing statistics, Albert Belle seems bound to look better to Baltimore fans.


How could they? How could they sign a player who's booed in every major-league ballpark? Give a multiyear mega-contract to someone called a discredit to the great game of baseball? How in the world could the Cleveland Indians sign Roberto Alomar?

Sorry, Robbie, but you know the rules. One day you're wearing an Orioles jersey and all of Baltimore applauds you, the next you're in an Indians cap and, well, here's spit in your eye.

Which brings us to Darth -- er, Albert -- Belle, the newest O, as in, Oh, dear! Fans are as fickle as junior high sweethearts, but we're supposed to cheer for him?

Of course we are. Of course we will. We have no choice. Yesterday he joined our team, for five years and $65 million.

"It's very difficult to say, 'I'm a fan of this team, but I withdraw my affection for this one player,' " says Frank Deford, the National Public Radio commentator and acclaimed writer for Sports Illustrated. "It's too difficult emotionally.

"When you're an Orioles fan, you sort of have to sign up for the whole package. How do you not root for him?"

Let us count the ways. Belle is, by most accounts, a surly, glowering, mean-spirited slugger who employs great epithetical creativity in telling seekers of interviews, autographs and Halloween candy to scram. According to the Associated Press, Belle has been suspended during his career for "destroying part of a bathroom, hitting a taunting fan in the chest with a thrown baseball, twice charging the mound, using a corked bat and hitting an infielder with his forearm." And that's just on the field.

Flags aren't exactly flying at half-staff in Chicago, where Belle played two seasons for the White Sox.

"What a special gift it is to be able to improve a place by leaving it," wrote Bernie Lincicome, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Warts. Weeds. Albert Belle. The list isn't that long."

Granted, Eddie Murray didn't exchange Christmas cards with many newspaper columnists, and his standing in Baltimore remained high. But Orioles fans watched Murray grow up, leave home and return again. They have booed Belle for a decade. And now they are just supposed to forget?

"I think they will if he does well," says Don Betz, manager of Jay's Sports Connection, a card and memorabilia shop in Towson. "The first time he strikes out, you're going to hear boos all the way to Delaware."

Villains one day, heroes the next. What is this -- professional wrestling?

"I think there are definitely some similarities," says Jay Andronaco, spokesman for the World Wrestling Federation, "especially in how quickly the fans turn on someone."

The most popular WWF wrestler, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, once was a bad guy. One of the good guys, Ken Shamrock, is now a bad guy.

"You love them one day and hate them the next," Andronaco says. "That happens day in and day out. It's amazing how people react."

Actually, says Deford, who grew up in Baltimore and still considers himself an Orioles fan, professional wrestling toys less with fan emotions than major-league baseball, where players seem to change teams every other season.

"The difference between today and the Orioles teams of Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer and Mark Belanger and Boog Powell is extraordinary," he says. "Those Orioles you grew up with. Now it's just like a new cast for a Broadway show every year."

Or, as Jerry Seinfeld puts it, fans no longer cheer for individual players, they cheer for laundry -- the home team's jersey.

Imagine Nestor Aparicio's dilemma. He loves the Orioles, but he and the people who call his radio sports-talk show don't love Albert Belle.

"The reaction has not been favorable, to say the least," says Aparicio, general manager and a host on sports radio station WKDB. "I think the tenor of the calls is not just about Albert Belle. It's about the direction the Orioles are going. Don't you stand for anything anymore?"

There is hurt in his voice.

"They just make it hard on me," he says. "Give me guys that I want to go cheer for. Tell me who they could sign who has a track record of being a worse citizen than Albert Belle?"

Citizenship aside, name another available player who has the potential to slug 50 home runs and drive in 150 runs. But even those lofty numbers didn't exactly endear him to White Sox fans.

"Albert Belle just never changed here," says Isaiah Crawford, chairman of the psychology department at Loyola University in Chicago. "He just always remained the same kind of guy. I didn't have the impression that Chicago hated Albert Belle. The fans were indifferent."

Crawford studies the relationship between sports and fans. He says Belle could improve his standing with some aggressive "impression management" -- express contrition for past behavior, pledge to be a better person, make himself more available to fans.

"Then you might warm up to him," he suggests.

OK, if Cal Ripken Jr. can sit out a game, then anything's possible. But Crawford acknowledges that so far, Belle has shown no inclination to explore his "impression management" options.

It seems likely that most Baltimore fans will give Belle a chance. Even Aparicio says he's willing to wipe the slate clean.

Jesse Orosco, the Orioles relief pitcher and former teammate of Belle's, has said, "I think he's going to be fine."

Unspoken is a plea: Please let us like you. Or perhaps it is another plea: Please don't hit us.

For those fans who say they won't cheer, who boast of how they will boycott O's games, take this test:

Close your eyes. Imagine Opening Day or, better yet, the first home game against the Yankees. Two out, bottom of the ninth, bases jammed, Orioles down by three. Belle steps to the plate. Ask not for whom he toils, O's fans, he now toils for thee.

What are you going to do, sit on your hands? Deford thinks not.

L "Once somebody puts on that uniform, you're stuck with him."

Only 125 shopping days until Opening Day. Bring your chest protector.

Pub Date: 12/02/98

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