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Orioles' only way to catch Yanks is to give 'em Belle; Baseball

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's time to call Joe Torre's bluff.

The most accomplished manager in baseball is convinced that he can handle Albert Belle, so why not let him give it a try?

The New York Yankees still need an everyday left fielder, and owner George Steinbrenner proved with the Roger Clemens deal last spring that he is not afraid to fiddle with the great chemistry of a defending world championship club.

So, this should be the new Orioles motto: "If you can't beat 'em, let Albert join 'em."

The Yankees are too good. They just proved that by dominating a World Series opponent that won 103 games during the regular season. Barring some unforeseen and dramatic change in the divisional balance of power, they will win the American League East again next year and leave the Orioles to fight over the table scraps.

Even if Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos is willing to spend liberally again to improve his club, the free-agent market is so thin that it will be next to impossible to turn the Orioles into a champion by next October.

The only possible answer is addition by subtraction. Belle is just the kind of player who would satisfy Steinbrenner's continuing thirst for attention. The Boss will savor his third world title in four years for a few months, but the Yankees eventually will find themselves in the same position they were last spring -- when they acquired Clemens in a blockbuster deal that sent David Wells, Graeme Lloyd and Homer Bush to the Toronto Blue Jays.

There is only one position where the Yankees can make a dramatic upgrade -- left field -- and that's the position that Belle played before he moved to right field this year in Baltimore.

Don't get too excited. The Yankees aren't going to give up a bunch of front-line players to get Belle. The Orioles probably would have to hand him over on a silver platter. They might get a couple of marginal players -- maybe Shane Spencer and minor-league prospects -- but it wouldn't be about getting value in return. It would be about getting back control of the clubhouse and letting the new Orioles manager begin his tenure in a positive environment.

Belle still has four years and $52 million in guaranteed salary remaining on the five-year deal he signed with the Orioles last off-season. He also has an ironclad no-trade clause that extends through the 2001 season. But the Orioles might be able to get around that by offering to give him a large portion of his $15 million in deferred salary up front as an incentive to approve the deal.

There would be plenty of other incentive for Belle to make the move. He would be joining the team that has the best chance of winning the World Series in 2000, and -- if he puts up his usual numbers -- he might even help the Yankees do it.

Of course, there is always the chance that he'll upset their wonderful chemistry and help bring them down, which is why the Orioles should put him on the next plane.

Torre expressed confidence that Belle would fit well in the Yankees' clubhouse when they were pursuing him as a free agent last year. The popular Yankees manager continued to express that feeling even after Belle tangled in the dugout with Orioles manager Ray Miller early in the season.

Maybe Torre has the magic formula. He certainly has shown the ability to meld a diverse group of star-quality players into a terrific "me-second" championship unit. There is no arguing with his record of success since he took over the club four years ago. Maybe he can turn the obsessive, self-centered Belle into a team player.

Better still, maybe he can't, which is all the more reason to let him try.

Yankees 2000

The Yankees will remain largely intact this winter. The only players eligible for free agency are veteran pitcher David Cone, reliever Mike Stanton, catcher Joe Girardi and utility infielder Luis Sojo.

The club apparently will try to re-sign Cone and Stanton, but Girardi is expected to leave in search of regular playing time and Sojo probably won't be a high priority.

The biggest challenge facing the front office will not be the club's potential free agents, but arbitration-eligible stars Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Both will command huge one-year awards through the arbitration process, so the team figures to make a major push to sign them both to long-term contracts.

Gray area

NBC sideline reporter Jim Gray took a lot of criticism for his aggressive interview with Pete Rose last Sunday night, but his problem wasn't the line of questioning. The interview went awry because Gray obviously did not go into it with a Plan B, which left him in an awkward position when Rose did not come forth with the contrite response that Gray initially sought.

It was worth a try, but Gray should have anticipated that Rose would give the same answer he has given countless times to the charge that he bet on baseball. Once it became apparent that Rose wasn't going to change his tune, Gray needed to change the tenor of the interview to exploit the surprising reception that Rose got from the fans at Turner Field.

That tremendous ovation should have been a message to commissioner Bud Selig that the fans want Rose back in the game -- or, at least, eligible for the Hall of Fame. Gray may have done Selig a favor by diverting attention away from the emotional public embrace Rose received during the introduction of the All-Century Team, but he did a disservice to his audience.

Fox backtracks

The upper-management shuffle that just put former Warner Bros. executive Bob Daly in charge of the Los Angeles Dodgers could reshape the organization in its old image.

Daly, who got a strong endorsement from former owner Peter O'Malley, is a confidant of former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, which means that Lasorda's influence in the organization is clearly on the rise and general manager Kevin Malone is suddenly on the bubble.

Olerud headed home?

The appointment of Pat Gillick as executive vice president/general manager of the Seattle Mariners clearly enhances the possibility that New York Mets first baseman John Olerud will consider the Mariners when he files for free agency.

Mets officials apparently are concerned that Gillick is doing some lobbying, based on a published report that he contacted Olerud's parents on a recent trip to Seattle, but Gillick has been friendly with the Olerud family since he first signed Olerud to play for the Toronto Blue Jays.

That might be construed as tampering, since other clubs are not yet permitted to negotiate with pending free agents, but the Mets have not made any formal complaint.

"I would not comment on this," Mets GM Steve Phillips told the New York Post, "but if I thought there was tampering, I would complain to the commissioner's office."

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