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Belle brings menace, fire to somnolent Oriole team


THE SUMMER of 1998, with great planning and foresight, the Baltimore Orioles spent $73 million and won 79 ballgames. This means, using simple division, that it cost them $924,050 per victory. Now they've spent $65 million on Albert Belle, and wish to call it progress. And maybe it is.

Belle arrived here Tuesday looking smaller than life. He was so rushed to leave Chicago, he left his sense of menace behind. He chased no kids down streets, threw no forearm shivers into second basemen blocking his path, cursed not a single reporter.

Maybe he sensed the anxiety in the crowded room in the Camden Yards warehouse when they ushered him in for a half-hour news conference, and then ushered him back out after the questions started getting a little personal. You could sense Orioles officials sighing with relief at his exit.

By then, Belle had done a little two-step around his history. Without getting specific, he talked of "mistakes" he's made in the past, of previously being "selfish," of "great strides" he's making to get along with fans he's previously stiffed.

This was quite lovely to hear, and maybe even believable. For a few minutes there, Belle was funny and charming, in the same way guys at the House of Correction [See Olesker, 6c]

can be delightful until you check their history and find they're doing life plus 20.

Do we compare Belle to career criminals? No, it's the mask we compare. Belle's is the face of the scowler, the curser, the haunted spirit wrestling with demons. He called baseball a "war zone." Actually, it's a game for children. Maybe he makes himself angry to keep his edge.

But it made the mask he wore Tuesday a little tough to figure him out. Who's the real Belle: the guy who's been suspended a half-dozen times, or the smiling fellow who sat there Tuesday without a flicker of anger crossing his features?

The first couple of questions tossed Belle's way seemed like batting practice lobs: Why did he pick Baltimore? Did he like Camden Yards? Nobody seemed eager to ask about his personal history. Had he talked to Cal Ripken? Yes, Belle said, he'd talked to Ripken in the past.

"He was playing shortstop, and I was hitting a lot of doubles," Belle said.

At this, he heard the sound of appreciative laughter fill the room. Belle smiled shyly, and his eyes lighted up. He looked delighted to have pleased people, and seemed unaccustomed to it.

Only Belle's eyes were a giveaway to the fellow behind the mask. They never stopped moving, darting, not for the entire time he sat there. It wasn't the deer-caught-in-headlights look, but a man on constant alert, ready to get his defenses up if necessary.

"He's made mistakes, but he's grown from them," said Frank Wren, the Orioles' new general manager.

Wren said this at roughly the same hour the Orioles would discover their own mistakes. Rafael Palmeiro, their best hitter, was departing for Texas. And for less money than the Orioles offered him. Palmeiro, of course, carries his own emotional baggage.

"The most insecure superstar I've ever known," one Orioles official muttered just minutes before discovering Palmeiro's departure. "He'd brood because he never got voted onto the All Star Team, and when we got him added to the roster, they had to beg him to take part in the home run hitting contest."

Others remembered Palmeiro sulking at the batting cage one day. "They had a poster night for Cal," Palmeiro said, "and a poster night for Mussina. Why didn't they have a poster night for me?"

Here's a guy making millions, and he's worried about a poster? Yet, for all his sensitivities, Palmeiro was a marvelous hitter and a good guy to have around. Remember him pushing Ripken out of the dugout to take his victory lap the night he broke Gehrig's record? Remember the game-winning homers last summer?

What was missing from Palmeiro, though, was the thing that seemed missing from the whole club: a sense of fire. The team waltzed through a miserable summer, and no one seemed troubled by it.

In Cleveland and Chicago, Belle crushed baseballs in the most awesome way, and still seemed chased by demons.

For a long time, the Orioles have marketed themselves as good guys. Ripken, the symbol of the team, is a role model for the whole country. The "Oriole way" was once a role model for the whole baseball industry. It had to do with stability, with good citizenship, with bringing kids up through the minors and holding onto them through the years, and it had to do with financial sanity.

Well, guess what? Those days have long since passed, and we delude ourselves to think otherwise. The good guys go somnolent through fruitless summers, and expect to be forgiven because they're good guys.

Albert Belle arrives with club in hand, and demons in his eyes. He's nobody's symbol of Chamber of Commerce citizenship. But maybe he brings fire to this team, and maybe he'll wake up those who seem to sleepwalk through their summers.

Pub Date: 12/03/98

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