- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2001

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. Albert Belle's baseball career may be in its final hours.

A Baltimore radio station reported late last night that the 34-year-old Orioles outfielder will announce his retirement by tomorrow.

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WBAL-AM, citing unconfirmed sources, said the arthritic hip that has plagued Belle since last summer will force the slugger to retire. Orioles director of public relations Bill Stetka could not confirm or deny the report and said no announcement has been scheduled.

"I'm hearing the same things," Stetka told The Washington Times last night, "but I don't know anything for certain."

If Belle were to announce his retirement for medical reasons, he still would receive the $39 million remaining on the final three years of his contract with the Orioles. The team has an insurance policy that reportedly would cover 70 percent of Belle's contract if he suffers a baseball-related, career-ending injury.

Talk of Belle's imminent retirement has dominated Orioles camp throughout spring training. Belle told a newspaper Monday that he needs "a miracle" to avoid retirement, and manager Mike Hargrove and vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift spoke yesterday as if they were expecting the 34-year-old to call it quits shortly.

"I think we're much farther down that road than we were two days ago," said Hargrove, whose team played its fifth straight exhibition game yesterday without Belle in uniform.

Thrift has yet to hear anything definitive from Belle but likewise appears to accept the inevitable.

"We've played five games, and he hasn't been able to play," Thrift said. "That speaks for itself."

Belle, who refused to speak with reporters for the second straight day, told USA Today on Monday his career was probably over.

"At this stage, I need a miracle," he told the paper. "I was hoping it would never get to that point, but it has. It's tough to accept."

Belle's USA Today comments took the Orioles by surprise. Thrift, who read the article, spoke with Belle on Monday but got the impression the slugger wanted to continue to try to play.

"I haven't heard any of those statements [from Belle]," Thrift said. "It's news to me. We have to find out exactly what he means by all these things. We have to wait to see what he says."

Belle's concession that his baseball career is essentially over also came as news to Hargrove, who said he was surprised to hear "that he was that far along in his thinking."

The Orioles' medical staff gave Belle a clean bill of health during team physicals Feb. 20, a decision owner Peter Angelos defended.

"Although the doctors may have been skeptical, they felt he should be given the opportunity to test his hip and see if he can play," Angelos told USA Today. "The way it looks, he's not able to do so. The injury is one of substantial magnitude."

Belle said Sunday he would consider seeking medical advice from team orthopedist Michael Jacobs if his condition did not improve. Hargrove and Thrift both said yesterday that no plans had been made for Belle to visit either Jacobs in Sarasota or Dr. Charles Silberstein, who examined him earlier this winter in Baltimore.

If Belle indeed announces his retirement, he would end his career 11 home runs shy of 400 with a .295 career batting average, 1,239 RBI and 1,726 hits.

He was one of the dominant players of the 1990s, leading all players in the decade with 1,099 RBI. His streak of eight straight seasons with at least 30 homers and 100 RBI from 1992 to 1999 has been matched only by Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmy Foxx.

His numbers tailed off considerably last season, though, when he began feeling pain in his hip. He was eventually diagnosed with an inflamed bursa sac in his right hip, forcing him to miss much of the final month of the season. He finished the year with 23 home runs, 103 RBI and a .281 batting average.

Belle spent the offseason rehabbing the hip and entered camp three weeks ago saying he felt better and expected to be the Orioles' everyday right fielder again.

Thrift has said the Orioles could fill Belle's roster spot from within the organization and would not need to acquire another player should he not be able to perform. Baltimore already has a logjam of sorts in its outfield, with Brady Anderson, Delino DeShields, Jeff Conine, Melvin Mora and Chris Richard on the 25-man roster.

Richard, who hit 13 home runs in 56 games with the Orioles last year, probably would get the regular right-field job in Belle's absence. Mora is slated to start in center field. Anderson and DeShields would share left field and designated hitter duties, with Anderson getting more time in the field. Conine, who can play the outfield, third base and first base, would serve as a backup, though he could be traded before the start of the season.

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