- The Washington Times - Monday, February 19, 2001

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. Albert Belle says his degenerative right hip has improved dramatically since last fall, and the slugger plans to resume his role as a regular with the Baltimore Orioles.

"How many games I could play right now, I really couldn't tell you," Belle said yesterday during a rare interview with beat reporters. "But I know as long as I continue to strengthen the leg and do what I'm supposed to do, I have a pretty good chance to play in a lot of games."

Looking physically fit, Belle who has bulked up from 225 pounds to 240 pounds spoke for about 20 minutes in the Orioles' dugout at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. Position players are due to report to camp today, but Belle arrived Friday and has been taking swings in a batting cage since then.

The 34-year-old discussed the pain he endured in September when he discovered the injury and the intense rehabilitation program he went through during the offseason. There was talk recently that he was in danger of failing tomorrow's mandatory team physical, but Belle said there is no doubt in his mind he will pass and will be able to perform on the field.

Belle underwent a physical exam last month following his appearance at the Orioles' annual Fan Fest event and said "the doctor was surprised himself with the improvements I had made."

"I've been steadily improving since the Fan Fest physical," he added, "so I don't see any doubts going into Tuesday."

Belle said he first felt pain in his right hip in July but did nothing about it until his right leg went numb shortly before Labor Day.

"Had I got it checked out before the All-Star break in July," he said, "I probably could have done some stuff to help us get to the end of the season."

The worst pain came following a Sunday afternoon game in Cleveland on Sept. 3. Unable to sit for extended periods of time, Belle said he stood during most of the team's flight to Minnesota.

"I woke up the next morning, and it was pretty much numb," he said. "Right then, I knew something wasn't right."

Belle sat out much of the rest of the month and finished the 2000 season with 23 home runs and 103 RBI, well below his output in recent years.

He returned to his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., following the season and began a rigorous rehab program that centered on building up other muscles and regaining his flexibility and range of motion. He said he has not felt any pain since Nov. 1.

"The first couple weeks of rehab, it was just sore getting used to these different exercises I had never done before," Belle said. "For the first month, it was a getting-used-to process. But after that, everything went pretty smooth.

"Everything's been improving. Improvement in strength, improvement in flexibility, improvement in range of motions. So far, I'm pretty much right on course."

Belle's offseason regimen included three days a week of rehab and three days a week of golf. He swung a bat and threw baseballs regularly, though he has yet to do much running.

Instead, Belle has been riding a bike six days a week, so much so that he joked he can "probably go halfway around the world."

He said he plans on taking things slowly during spring training. It is likely he won't appear in every exhibition game, and he probably won't travel everywhere with the Orioles. He wants to be the team's starting right fielder, not merely a designated hitter.

"I'm walking in as the right fielder," Belle said. "I'm sure there are going to be some days where it feels great and some days where it feels sore. Hopefully by the end of spring training, we'll have everything narrowed down. I'd like to go back out there in the outfield, but it depends on the condition."

He said he's also confident his health can hold up over the course of the season and that another 40-plus home run season is not out of the question.

"There may be some days where I feel like I need a rest," Belle said. "I may not play 162 games, but with the players we have now, I feel confident they can step in and do just as good a job."

Signed in December 1998 to a five-year deal worth about $13 million a season, Belle has seen his numbers drop over the last two seasons. After hitting 49 home runs and driving in 152 RBI with a .328 batting average for the Chicago White Sox in 1998, he fell to 37 homers and 117 RBI his first year with the Orioles. His 23 home runs last season were his fewest in 10 years.

Having experienced what it's like to have a serious injury, Belle said he's prepared to better maintain his health in the future.

"Last year was basically the first injury of my career," he said. "I really didn't know how to deal with it and waited till it got to a point it shouldn't have gotten to."

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