Belle and Baltimore almost didn't connect. The team's first choice in the free-agent market was St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Brian Jordan (who signed with the Atlanta Braves), and Yankees general manager Brian Cashman says that Belle had agreed to a deal with New York before changing his mind 15 minutes later. The acquisition of Belle, fully backed by Angelos (who broke his own rule against paying a player more than $10 million a season), was the key to Wren's bid to put a new face on the old Orioles. Seven of those 14 free agents were not re-signed, including two All-Stars, the temperamental second baseman Roberto Alomar and the reserved first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. In the first five days of December, Wren traded for Gold Glove backstop Charles Johnson (filling a defensive void that had plagued the team for years) and acquired what special assistant Syd Thrift calls "different types": mercurial second baseman Delino DeShields, the manically intense (if past his prime) first baseman Will Clark and Belle, who at the news conference to announce his signing said, "Once I step on the ball field, it's a war zone out there."
No one considered that to be hyperbole. Belle's intimidating stare at opposing pitchers and his take-no-prisoners attitude toward foes have earned him much respect but few friends. He has been suspended six times in his career for, among other things, charging the mound (twice), using a corked bat and leveling an infielder with a forearm shiver. Belle isn't shy about saying he expects his combative attitude to rub off on his new teammates. "That's the only way I know how to play," he says. "We're going to go all out. I know Will Clark has his intensity level. Hopefully it'll rub off on these guys, bring about a different scenario than last year. With us coming over, the new guys, there's definitely going to be a change."
The Baltimore organization has always prided itself on being about more than just results. There was a right way and a wrong way to play baseball, a style known as the Oriole Way, and its emphasis on sound fundamentals discouraged individual flash and controversy as effectively as it created winners. The Orioles' reputation as a bastion of quality—the L.L. Bean of baseball—has survived Reggie Jackson, free-agent defections and a farm system that hasn't produced an every-day impact player since Ripken became a regular in 1982. Belle will provide its latest test.
"The Orioles are a special franchise, very community oriented, and the people support it better than probably any city in baseball," Wren says. "There are things that go along with that. We explained that to Albert, and Albert was very receptive. He has been outstanding." In January he made his first public appearance as an Oriole at the club's FanFest in Baltimore and fulfilled his obligation to sign autographs for 90 minutes. Then, after learning that he still had a few hours before his flight back to Chicago, Belle turned down a chance to grab a meal and said, "Why don't I sign more autographs?" He returned to his seat and signed for another 45 minutes. "Everybody started cheering when they saw him," says Orioles media relations director John Maroon.
This is the Albert that Baltimore was hoping for when it signed him, an Albert who reaches out. During the first week of spring training Belle made it a habit to sign autographs every day after workouts; said he would, if asked, gladly shift from leftfield (where B.J. Surhoff is the incumbent) to right; and said he would be willing to surrender his usual cleanup spot to bat third. (He probably will remain at cleanup.) Last Thursday, in his second session with reporters, he even revealed flashes of humor. About Camden Yards, Belle quipped, "I've been treated there just like I've been treated everywhere else: You got everybody booing for you. I take that as a compliment." Then he went on to tell a story about a fan who was annoying him two years ago in Chicago. "He told me I was one hot dog away from being Cecil Fielder," Belle said. "I got the biggest laugh out of that."
Such jocularity seemed strange coming from Belle, whose profanity-laced tirades have become lore among reporters and who once fired one ball at a fan and another at a photographer for trying to take his picture. This is a man who, though his war with fans and media cooled during his two years in Chicago, still found his reputation sullied by that domestic battery charge last summer. The fact that Belle pressed harassment charges against the woman, Stephanie Bugusky, for allegedly phoning him more than 20 times the day after a judge extended a restraining order against him and that all charges involving both of them were eventually dropped did little to improve his hot-tempered image. "I can't control that anymore," Belle says. "I'm not going to try to. But when you win a lot more games than you lose, your image seems to get better. When you hit tons of home runs, drive in tons of runs, your image gets better."
Whether Belle's troubles have taught him anything besides the basics of public relations, however, remains in question. Belle still refuses to let photographers take his picture in or around the batting cage because, as Maroon says, "it makes him nervous," and he rails at them when they don't abide by his wishes. He still can snap at a fan when an autograph is requested during a workout. When asked if, given the chance, he would change anything he did in the past, Belle shakes his head and says no. Then he turns to look his questioner dead in the eye. "No," he says again.
But last Thursday, after he smashed two batting practice home runs, took in the applause from some 200 fans at Fort Lauderdale Stadium and sat for yet another interview, Belle walked out to the front gate of the complex. A line of 70 people waited for him with balls and hats and cards. No other players were there. He stopped and dipped his head and began to sign, exchanging words with some of the people, scribbling but not rushing, in the way that Ripken made famous. The line inched forward like a great snake. Belle made no move to leave. After 20 minutes the line exhausted itself, and he turned to go. "Thanks, Albert!" yelled one woman, then others chimed in with "Thanks!" and "Have a great year!"
With his back to the crowd, Belle waved his hand above his shoulder and kept walking. It was a nice moment, the end of spring training's first day, the air going cool in a soft tropical light. You could envision such a scene repeating itself throughout the Florida days and the Baltimore summer, a whole season of redemptive moments that just might add up to a new man. You could also see those good intentions going up in smoke.
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