| Belle's 1st O's Season Strictly for the Birds By Dave Sheinin |
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 31, 1999; Page D1
With a little more than a month left in the season, the Orioles are battling lowly Tampa Bay to stay out of last place in the American League East, and with a 58-72 record and an $84 million payroll, they seem ensured to gain the dubious distinction of becoming the first team in baseball history to pay more than $1 million per victory.
There have been other factors in the Orioles' collapse, beginning with a starting rotation that didn't come together until June, and a bullpen that blew 20 saves in the first half of the season.
But when Belle's 1999 season is viewed in relation to the expectations and the size and scope of his contract -- $65 million over five years, with a blanket no-trade clause for the first three -- it raises questions about the decision to sign the volatile slugger to such a long and leveraged contract.
Despite a club record-tying four doubles on Sunday, Belle is hitting only .285, which is 43 points less than his 1998 average with the Chicago White Sox. With 29 homers and 87 runs batted in, he is on pace for 36 and 108 -- solid numbers for a cleanup hitter, but far below his production over the previous six seasons, and nowhere near the major league leaders in this era of inflated power numbers.
"He's been basically what we expected," said General Manager Frank Wren. "He's been better defensively than I thought he would be. He has a good arm. There's much too much made of his defensive shortcomings. He just hasn't had the kind of [offensive] year he has had in the past."
Belle would not comment for this story, but his struggles at the plate have placed his pregame routine and lack of communication with hitting coach Terry Crowley -- who is widely credited with the improved production of many Orioles regulars -- under greater scrutiny.
Brady Anderson is hitting nearly 40 points better than his career average. Mike Bordick is hitting 14 points above his career average and has set a career high for RBI. B.J. Surhoff has set career highs in homers and RBI and might in batting average, and made his first all-star team. Before he was traded, Harold Baines had the highest batting average of his 20-year career.
Jeff Conine is hitting 23 points above his career average. Charles Johnson is hitting 10 points above his career average. Cal Ripken is hitting 59 points above his career average and has the best home run ratio (one every 17.9 at-bats) of his career.
All of them have worked to varying degrees with Crowley, who came to the Orioles this season after eight seasons with Minnesota, and many of them have credited Crowley for their increased production. Belle, however, does not interact with Crowley. Although Crowley declined to be interviewed for this story, his relationship with Belle has been described by team sources as anywhere from strained to nonexistent.
Belle does not take batting practice with the rest of the team or take advantage of Crowley's knowledge in one-on-one sessions. Instead, since June, Belle has done all his hitting indoors, with his twin brother, Terry, flipping balls to him. He does this with the team's blessing.
"I think you give a player who has been as successful as Albert the latitude to figure out what he needs to do to prepare himself," Wren said. "Do I think he should work with Crow? Yes, I think everyone should. Crow is that good. But if [Belle] believes in it, you can't force him. I would prefer every player be involved in team activities."
Belle has followed the same routine -- working on his hitting alone with a flip-toss assistant -- for most of his career. But during his first two months with the Orioles, Belle took batting practice on the field with his teammates.
Belle's decision to stop taking batting practice coincides with his two off-the-field incidents. On June 8 at Florida, Belle was benched for defensive purposes after failing to run out a ground ball, leading to a heated exchange in the dugout with Orioles Manager Ray Miller. That same week, another incident came to light when a fan sent a letter to Orioles owner Peter Angelos complaining that Belle raised his middle finger and grabbed his crotch while facing in the direction of fans in the right field bleachers at Camden Yards on June 6.
The incidents led to Belle's benching on June 9. It was during an exchange around this time, according to Miller, that Belle expressed dissatisfaction with the Orioles' batting-practice pitching, and asked to be allowed to work on his own. Although Miller points out that Belle probably hits twice as long as anyone else, Miller feels Belle would benefit from seeing live pitching on the field before games.
"He said he wasn't comfortable with our batting-practice pitching and that he'd be better off in the cage. He said he thinks the program he has is better," Miller said. "Apparently he's done it in the past and has been successful with it. When a guy produces like he has, you give a little leeway. I'd like to see him work with Crow, and he has off and on. But I want to keep him happy. . . .
"Common sense says you should hit on the field every day to see the [hitting] background. But as long as he gets his work in, I don't care. He stretches with the team, and sometimes he goes to right field [to shag flies] a little bit."
Asked about his personal relationship with Belle, Miller said, "I say, 'Hi.' He says, 'Hi.' I say, 'Nice job.' He says, 'Thanks.' He's not very communicative with many people."
Through Belle's eight months with the Orioles, there has never been a critical word spoken about him on the record by anyone associated with the team, and Belle has been treated carefully. While every other player has received ample time off, Belle has been benched only once. And he has not been moved from his cleanup spot in the order, even though his low production there has often been a drain on the offense.
Belle is hitting just .203 with runners in scoring position and two outs, and is 0 for 7 in bases-loaded situations. Belle's slugging percentage this season (.511) is 66 points below his career average, and behind such less-heralded players as Carl Everett, Geoff Jenkins, Bobby Abreu, Phil Nevin, Ed Sprague, Preston Wilson and Troy O'Leary.
Belle has spoken to the media once since the season began, after a three-homer game against the Anaheim Angels on July 25. At the time, he did not seem concerned about his offensive struggles. "I'm pretty much right on schedule," he said. "Start off slow, finish up strong. I don't know why everyone panics. I've been doing this for 10 years now. Why change?"
However, he has yet to "finish up strong." His average has risen two points since then, with only five more homers and 18 more RBI. His career history suggests he will have a big September, but his critics would point out that most of Belle's furious finishes have come when his team is far from contention.
Belle's "journal" on his Internet Web site (AOL Keyword: Belle) has at times addressed his struggles at the plate. On June 6, he wrote, "[S]ooner or later when the guys around me are hitting more, I'm going to start getting pitches and I'll start hitting the ball more."
Belle is the Orioles' cleanup hitter. On the day that journal entry was posted, the players directly on either side of him in the lineup, Surhoff in the third spot and Baines in the fifth, were hitting .332 and .347, respectively. Belle's average at the time was .251.
Although Miller credits Belle's imposing presence as one reason other hitters in the lineup have seen better pitches to hit, Belle's implication that he was not receiving adequate protection from the rest of the lineup was clearly invalid.
Defensively, Belle has thrown out 15 base runners, which leads American League outfielders, and has made only four errors -- a major achievement considering he had only one assist and 10 errors as recently as 1997.
But the Orioles are not pleased with what Belle has done off the field. One team official said the organization is "concerned" about Belle's overall actions off the field, including breaking a preseason promise to be cooperative with the media. In addition to the June incidents, he also hurled a beer bottle through a television set in St. Petersburg on April 21.
Belle also accused the Orioles' public-relations staff in July of leaking the story that he had agreed to waive his no-trade clause, even though the initial story quoted Chicago White Sox Manager Jerry Manuel as telling reporters that Belle had done so. During his July 25 news conference, Belle denied that he had ever waived his no-trade clause.
Although it might appear the Orioles would have a hard time trading Belle even if they could, Wren said that is not true. Several teams called Wren before the July 31 trade deadline to inquire about Belle, but none of the discussions went far.
"To say there is no interest in [Belle] around the league," Wren said, "would be wrong."
But Wren said the Orioles are not looking to trade Belle anyway. "When we put this deal together, we knew he was going to be a force in the middle of the lineup for years to come. That's a tough commodity to get in this game, and we have it."