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Adding a little Belle pepper Newest Oriole: Baltimore fans can only hope that he fulfills his playing prowess, not his nasty reputation.


UNITAS, ROBINSON, Ripken, Unseld. Baltimore has been blessed with hometown sports heroes who epitomized grace and style.

Albert Belle, the outfielder the Baltimore Orioles have acquired for $65 million over five years, doesn't fit that mold. His ability to hit a baseball hard and far is unquestioned. Unfortunately, he is better known for throwing baseballs -- hitting a photographer and a fan when he played for Cleveland a few years ago.

It's ironic that Baltimore this off-season would lose an Eric Davis, whose heroic battle against cancer inspired many, and gain a Belle, and that a team accused of lacking the "chemistry" to win last summer would add their most expensive player ever, though team chemistry is his weakest subject. The Orioles wouldn't have to look far -- to the Ravens' misplaced faith in Bam Morris last year or to the Washington Wizards' fitful basketball seasons with Chris Webber -- for examples of gambles on talent over temperament that lost.

Now that he's an Oriole, we hope that Mr. Belle isn't as rotten as his persona. In baseball, as in life, reputations are sometimes wrong, and they aren't unfixable.

Mr. Davis was labeled "fragile" when the Orioles lured him as a free agent; his team-high batting average a year after his cancer diagnosis proved otherwise. Longtime O's fans may recall reluctance in late 1965 to trade for Frank Robinson, whose quiet demeanor was mistaken for aloofness. He went on to become one of the most valuable, and beloved, Orioles ever. Conversely, star infielder Roberto Alomar had a placid past, but with the Orioles had spats with managers and spat on an umpire.

Mr. Ripken, the highest-paid Oriole prior to Mr. Belle, taught us that records, even big ones, were made to be broken.

Perhaps the newest Oriole will prove the same about reputations.

Pub Date: 12/02/98

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