Angry over a series of embarrassing incidents, Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos has authorized an investigation of right fielder Albert Belle that he hopes will enable the organization to void the remainder of Belle's five-year, $65 million contract -- or at least induce Belle to relinquish his no-trade clause, which extends through 2001.
Chief operating officer Joe Foss and chief counsel Russell Smouse recently traveled to Philadelphia as part of their fact-gathering efforts surrounding a June 4 incident at Camden Yards. Before and during the game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Belle allegedly made obscene gestures to fans in the right-field bleachers who were heckling his effort. There, Foss and Smouse interviewed the brother of an attorney from Prince George's County who had detailed the incident in a letter to Angelos.
Jon Landau, who accompanied his wife, children and brother's family to Camden Yards for the Phillies game, said last week that Foss alluded to potential legal action planned by the club against Belle.
The club couched the visit by Foss and Smouse as an apology. Indeed, Landau said he was impressed by the two executives' offer of a night in Angelos' luxury box, which he declined. But Landau, an attorney, added that Foss told him the club was trying to construct a case against Belle.
"I do think there was a purpose behind the apology," Landau said. "My impression was they had interest in taking some action against Albert Belle and wanted testimony."
Foss and Smouse took a train to Philadelphia on June 19, met Landau at his office for about 30 minutes, then returned to Baltimore to discuss their findings with Angelos. The owner has since interviewed a number of others within the organization about Belle's conduct and instructed general manager Frank Wren to cultivate trade leads regarding the controversial right fielder.
Despite a blanket no-trade clause that extends through the first three years of his five-year contract, Belle is absent from the six-man list of untouchables given potential trade partners.
Landau said the interview was not a formal deposition but said Smouse took copious notes.
"They said they were considering the possibility of canceling his contract based on some sort of morals clause they might be able to exercise," Landau said. "They said they might also use it as a fallback, as a bargaining chip to get him to renounce his no-trade [clause]."
The Orioles have made no comment regarding Belle since initially confirming receipt of the Landaus' two-page complaint regarding Belle.
Industry officials doubt Angelos can succeed by exploiting a contractual loophole. Citing a certain challenge from the Major League Baseball Players Association, one agent said Angelos' attempt "wouldn't be like looking for a needle in a haystack; it would be looking for a needle in a wheat field."
The Orioles chose not to deviate from the standard player contract when they signed Belle despite his extensive record of conflict with fans and media. At the time, Wren called signing Belle "a no-brainer" but apparently was less enthusiastic about the no-trade provision, which he initially did not disclose.
The Orioles have been disappointed by Belle's production but especially irritated by several incidents dating to spring training.
Not only has Belle conducted a blackout of local media, but he also reneged on a pledge to cooperate with rights holders WBAL and Home Team Sports. During a Dec. 1 news conference to announce his signing, Belle promised to grant at least occasional access during the season.
Belle reconsidered after his self-directed clubhouse tirade during a Grapefruit League game was reported. At the time, the Orioles responded by curtailing clubhouse access to media, but Belle seized upon it as a reason to quarantine himself from all but a select few media members.
Belle has complained to the club through his brother, Terry, that characterizations of his gestures are inaccurate and that he was provoked by profanity and racial taunts. That account differs from the Orioles' investigation, but according to one player who requested anonymity, such taunts have been heard from the bleachers.
Belle considered lifting his local media boycott after the club publicly acknowledged the June 4 incident and its apology to offended fans.
Belle inquired about making a statement to several local television reporters; however, he reconsidered when club officials suggested any statement include an apology about the original incident.
Classifying it as an "internal matter," the club refuses to say whether Belle was fined for the June 4 incident. It apparently was a factor in his June 11 benching in Atlanta, the game after a dugout confrontation with manager Ray Miller. Belle was not fined for that incident. Indications are that the club is seeking a more permanent solution.
Pub Date: 7/18/99