FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Albert Belle and his reputation walked into Fort Lauderdale Stadium yesterday and made a statement before uttering a word.
Belle not only consented to a hastily arranged group interview, but told Orioles director of media relations John Maroon he would meet reporters on their own turf, the claustrophobic press room located on the back side of the Orioles' administrative office. The man who left Cleveland known as Mr. Freeze arrived in camp willing to make nice.
During a 15-minute exchange, Belle downplayed the adjustments awaiting his arrival to Baltimore and expressed a thirst to achieve a world championship over individual glory with a team he has followed since his Louisiana youth.
Indirectly and maybe most telling, Belle conveyed a broader request for acceptance by using Mark McGwire's pursuit of 62 home runs as a parable.
"I knew after a while it wore on him, especially the part where he said he felt like a caged animal," Belle said. "I think when everybody backed away from him and gave him some breathing room it was a lot easier for him to go after the record. That just goes to say there's a medium out there between the player and the media. Once everybody realized he felt real crowded and gave him that space, it was easy for him to go out and break that record.
"It's different for every player, but there's a medium for everyone. You just have to find it."
Belle, 32, made clear he hopes to have found it with his third team in four years, leaving the Chicago White Sox to sign with the Orioles on Dec. 1. Facing a position switch and an unfamiliar spot within manager Ray Miller's batting order, he arrived in camp shaped by vigorous off-season conditioning. Having dropped off some bats last week, Belle yesterday shook hands with new teammates, took some brief batting practice and threw in the outfield with several minor-league players.
During the two-hour tour, Belle appeared eager to get comfortable with the new home he hurriedly selected as a conditional free agent. He moved into his locker between former teammate Harold Baines and rookie first baseman Calvin Pickering and exchanged niceties with bench coach Eddie Murray, another ex-teammate.
Belle said he had a "pretty good idea" he was headed to the New York Yankees before the Orioles interceded with their five-year, $65 million bid. The Yankees excused themselves, eventually re-signing their own free-agent outfielder, Bernie Williams.
"When the opportunity presented itself with the Orioles, I jumped pretty quick. That was my main goal," said Belle, seated on a metal folding chair among a dozen media members. "I think I would have rather come to Baltimore than the Yankees. The Yankees are the kingpin. You want to be the underdog that knocks them off the top. I've been in that situation my whole career and I want to keep doing that."
Before signing with the Orioles, however, Belle repeatedly called White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Ron Schueler, a somewhat odd move for a player professing to have always wanted to bleed black and orange.
Belle, who rode a strong second half to a .328 average with 49 home runs and 152 RBIs, has explained the calls as an attempt to seek a better understanding of the Sox's direction rather than solicitation for an upgraded offer.
In exchange for a no-trade clause for three of his five years, the Orioles have requested Belle become more aware of public and media relations.
So far, Belle has kept his part of the bargain, signing overtime at the club's recent FanFest, courteously stopping for fans at Fort Lauderdale Stadium last Friday and yesterday and even entering the belly of the beast for yesterday's impromptu news conference.
"I've said all along I'll put forth the effort to work with the media," Belle insisted, adding, "I've become more and more accessible every year compared to the past."
The day had one rough spot when a photographer attempted to shoot Belle as he took soft toss from his brother, Terry. Pointing a bat for emphasis, Belle warned off the offender but later took care to explain that he has never allowed himself to be photographed while taking extra batting practice.
Miller acknowledged the club has made clear to Belle his responsibilities to the fan base and the media. He added no problems are expected.
"Baltimore fans are basically blue-collar people," Miller said. "Regardless of what is said about the people who come to the games [being white collar], this fan base is primarily made up of blue-collar people who get up every day and go to work. Give them an effort and they'll appreciate you."
Since Sept. 20, Belle owns the game's longest active consecutive-games streak. He has averaged 161 games and 615 at-bats the past three seasons. He takes every plate appearance personally and speaks of each game as war.
"Pretty much the only thing I can guarantee about playing in Camden Yards is that I will play every day," Belle promised, at the same time trying to stifle projections of 70 home runs. "My main goal coming into spring training is to stay healthy. I know I am going to be out there every day, whether I'm playing right field, left field or DH a few games. I know as long as I get a chance to swing the bat 600 times a year I can put up big numbers. How many, we'll wait and see."
Asked of his possible legacy, Belle answered with a collective challenge.
"Individual goals are nice. But I don't want to be the guy who walks away from the game with 'x' home runs and 'x' RBIs but no championship," insisted Belle, who has never been named Most Valuable Player despite being the game's most productive offensive player the past eight years.
Invoking New York Yankees ace Roger Clemens, Belle said, "He's got five Cy Youngs but no championships. That's the main goal: to win championships."
Belle may have to work to find a comfort zone. For the first time since Miller projected his lineup in December, Belle expressed a twinge of discomfort over leaving his familiar cleanup role to bat third. Belle called it "an adjustment" and admitted a "preference" for the spot he has held "since Day 1."
Miller, already quizzed over the topic, has seemed to soften his stance in recent days. Indeed, Belle and White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas asked for a lineup adjustment last season when rookie manager Jerry Manuel batted Belle third ahead of the Big Hurt.
"If they want me to hit third, that's fine," Belle said. "I've always been in a situation where I like to protect the guy hitting in front of me. I've been debating whether to hit third or fourth, but wherever they want me to play "
Belle also is targeted to move from left to right field, a place he last roamed as a rookie with the Cleveland Indians in 1989, while B. J. Surhoff remains in left. Reminded of Camden Yards' right-field scoreboard and close confines, Belle seemed to shrug off the ghosts of Geronimo Berroa, Willie Greene and Bobby Bonilla.
"It'll be almost like playing in Fenway. You just get a different carom off the wall in right field compared to left field. Instead of turning one way, you turn the other way. You just adjust to it," he said.
Pub Date: 2/23/99