Orioles outfielder Albert Belle confirmed yesterday he is suffering from a "wear and tear" injury to his right hip that will necessitate a lengthy winter rehabilitation for him to retain his everyday role in right field next season.
"I want to be able to come back as a complete player," Belle told The Sun. "And hopefully with the rehab... with the strength and conditioning, I'll be back full force."
Belle, for the first time addressing a condition that has dogged him for nearly three months, said he will take batting practice this weekend in Boston as a prelude to a possible return as designated hitter during next week's season-ending homestand.
"That's why I'm going to take [batting practice] over the weekend," Belle said in his first comments to the media since implementing a media blackout June 14. "If I'm in pain, I won't chance it. If I take [batting practice] and it doesn't hurt, that's a positive improvement. That will show me that rehab and strengthening will help me come back for next year, and DH'ing will keep the pressure off it right now."
Belle hasn't played in 16 games since notifying manager Mike Hargrove in Minnesota on Sept. 4 that he was suffering severe pain in his hip and lower back. He has since been examined by team orthopedists and yesterday confirmed that he also saw noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Ala., earlier this month.
The initial diagnosis received by the team described a degenerative condition treated by anti-inflammatory medication, club sources said yesterday.
Belle said Andrews discovered inflammation of the bursa sac on his right hip. "It's inflamed from the wear and tear and the pounding," Belle said. "The doctor told me to just rest and rehab it and let the inflammation go down. It has gone down."
Hargrove has fielded questions daily about Belle's condition and consistently denied full knowledge of the situation, saying it is being handled "above my pay scale."
Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift confirmed earlier this week that Belle's medical reports had been "dispersed" but did not elaborate. Rather than quell interest, the club's reluctance to discuss Belle's status fueled speculation about the severity of his injury.
Belle said he began experiencing discomfort "around July 1 or the end of June" and remembered a particularly painful home game July 3 against the Toronto Blue Jays.
"We came back against Toronto, against David Wells. I was in pain," he said. "I was thinking, 'What did I do? But nothing was more painful than that Sunday [in Cleveland] and waking up Monday morning in Minnesota. It was intolerable."
Belle hastened that his condition is "not a Bo Jackson situation. My situation is a little different. Surgery is not an option at this point."
Jackson, a former two-sport star, suffered necrosis of the hip, which led to its eventual replacement. Necrosis is caused by the bone receiving too little blood and eventually dying. In Jackson's case, the condition is believed to have been caused by a hit taken as a running back for the Oakland Raiders. Belle's injury isn't believed traceable to a single incident.
"I think we caught it in time," said Belle. "It came to the point when, after the Sunday game in Cleveland, the next day I woke up and my leg was numb. I knew something was wrong. I told Grover I couldn't play. I think the doctors were amazed I was able to play on it for that long."
Irritated that word of his sore right hip leaked to the media earlier this season, Belle, 34, tried to play through the condition but only with mixed results.
Belle is batting .279 with 36 doubles, 22 home runs and 97 RBIs. His home runs and RBI totals represent career lows for a full season. He has only four home runs in his past 59 games compared with 18 homers in his first 74 games. From June 27 to July 31, Belle experienced the longest home run drought of his 12-year career, going 109 at-bats between homers. A career .296 hitter, Belle is also hitting .215 in his past 39 games.
Belle's run of eight consecutive seasons of 30 home runs and 100 RBIs is almost certain to end next Sunday. A typically sluggish first two months gave way to a breakout June in which Belle had 12 home runs and 37 RBIs, good enough to be named American League Player of the Month.
Overshadowed by Belle's reputation as a power hitter is his ability as a base-stealer. That, too, has been compromised by a season that has left him with a noticeable limp and diminished speed.
Belle stole 17 of 20 attempts in 1999. However, he has been caught on all five attempts this season, leaving him without a steal for the first time in his career.
Neither Belle nor the team are able to make a definitive projection about next season. An extensive rehabilitation is seen as vital to the process.
"At this stage, it's too early to say what's going to happen over the next few months," Belle said yesterday. "I'm going to be targeting different spots [in my rehab] than I have before. I won't be able to go all out like I used to. Usually, you work major muscles. Now I'm going to have to concentrate on smaller muscles and strengthen the whole area."
"I think time will be our ally," Thrift said yesterday. "Let's see what happens."
The injury adds another element to the Orioles' ongoing evaluation of Belle as either their everyday right fielder or regular designated hitter. By definition, a degenerative condition can accelerate with greater pounding, a factor that may lead to a role change.
"I think all that will be determined in the next few weeks and over the winter with whatever happens," Thrift said.
Opponent: Boston Red Sox
Site: Fenway Park, Boston
Times: 7:05 p.m.
TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)
Starters: O's Sidney Ponson (8-12, 5.00) vs. Red Sox's Ramon Martinez (10-7, 6.12)