- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2001

The reports that Albert Belle might never play another game for the Baltimore Orioles deserves a standing "O," and then some, because they would be so much better off without him.

There's only one other man whose absence from Charm City would benefit the Orioles more, and his name is Peter Angelos. Unfortunately, owner Angelos probably has better hips than player Belle, so we're stuck with Peter for now.

Belle, though, is likely to be gone in less than a week and for this team, a .500 average in anything ain't bad.

People who see only numbers when they watch baseball are moaning that Belle's departure would leave this season's probable last-place American League East team without a proven power hitter.

This is a little like saying that Slick Willie's departure from the White House leaves America without a proven president. In other words, good riddance.

Let's look at the record (thank you, Al Smith, the former presidential candidate, not the former ballplayer). Over his two seasons in black and orange, Belle has averaged .288, 30 home runs and 110 runs batted in. These are nice figures but hardly worth $13 million a year. (You could debate whether any baseball stats are worth $13 million a year, but that's another story.)

Now let's look at the Orioles' record with Albert riding his high horse: 152-172 and that was with Mike Mussina. No, these flops weren't all Belle's fault, but he certainly contributed with his "what's in it for me" attitude.

If Belle's once awesome production has changed the last two seasons, his persona hasn't: He's still lazy on the field and surly off it. If Albert cares about anything except Albert, he has kept the fact well hidden. Luckily for Baltimore, Belle doesn't live here year-round. This prevents him from wreaking untold damage on neighborhood youngsters with the gall to ring his doorbell on Halloween, as he did when he was the Cleveland Indians' PR problem some years back.

Belle's principal value to the Orioles has been as a symbol of everything Angelos has done to ruin one of baseball's best franchises.

In the not-old days, say 1980, this guy might not have been able to buy a ticket to a game in Baltimore. Back then, the Orioles didn't always win, but they always played with respect for one another, their city and its fans. Baseball men like Earl Weaver and Cal Ripken Sr., prophets of the Oriole Way, had no time for selfish soreheads. This was a team game, they kept reminding us, and even superstars like Brooks and Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Boog Powell and Cal Jr. cherished and honored that concept.

When the Orioles faltered after winning the World Series in 1983, owner Edward Bennett Williams tried to patch holes with free agents rather than hiring people who could reinvigorate the scouting ranks and farm system. When mostly absentee owner Eli Jacobs ran things following Williams' death, that foolish trend continued because Jacobs, basically, didn't give a rodent's rump.

Then, in 1993, along came Peter to make a bad situation worse. He fired some of the best managers and GMs in baseball when they dared challenge his sovereignty, as well as perhaps the best radio broadcaster ever because Jon Miller had the effrontery to tell his audience how crummy the O's had become. (OK, Peter technically didn't fire all of them he just made it impossible for them to stay.)

No other Orioles owner would have signed Belle, perhaps the most malevolent superstar since Ty Cobb, to a five-year, $65 million contract beginning in 1999. When I heard the news, my immediate reaction was, "Oh, no!" I remember feeling the same in 1968, when Richard Nixon selected the highly dubious Spiro Agnew as his running mate. Some things are totally inexplicable.

If all indications are correct, the Orioles will say goodbye to Fathead Albert next week, anointing young Chris Richard as their regular right fielder. As far as I'm concerned, the O's will be double winners this season if Richard can hit .260 with 15 homers and 75 RBI. They'll be winners right off the bat (pun intended) because Chris Richard won't be Albert Belle.

Isn't it a funny coincidence that the Orioles' only two remaining stars, Al and Cal, have missed the early exhibition games because of injuries especially since Belle "passed" his physical before spring training started. Maybe the exam was administered by the same doctor who convinced Angelos that Aaron Sele (17-10 for Seattle last season) wasn't healthy enough to deserve a long-term contract.

And isn't it ironic that Ripken, who seems to epitomize everything decent and good about baseball, has had to share a clubhouse and dugout these two seasons with a guy who's a poster boy for everything there is to dislike about professional sports today?

Once Belle is gone, folks who bleed black and orange can concentrate their dislike and disdain on the other guy who has made some of us proud to be ex-fans. I would never wish ill health on another person, of course but hey, Peter, aren't your hips starting to feel a little twinge or two?


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