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A 'mature' Albert? Pray, brother

BALTIMORE - Get ready, Orioles fans. Smoke 'em if you got 'em. Norman Bates will be playing left field at Camden Yards next season. "This is a great day for us," Orioles general manager Frank Wren said yesterday before a packed news conference at the B&O Warehouse. "The Baltimore Orioles would like to announce the signing of Albert Belle to a five-year contract." Of course, he said this hours before they lost Rafael Palmeiro to the Texas Rangers. This now opens up the prospect of trying to sign Robin Ventura to play third, moving Cal Ripken to first, coaxing Sid Fernandez out of retirement to pitch . . . It's good to have a plan. That popping sound heard in the distance was Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf opening bottles of champagne to celebrate his unbelievable good fortune that somebody actually got him of the hook for the rest of Belle's contract with the White Sox: $33 million for the next three years. And he must have been absolutely giddy that it was his hated enemy, Peter Angelos, who is now on the hook for Belle, to the tune of $65 million for a player who has been suspended six times during his eight-year career, throws baseballs at fans, tries to run down Halloween vandals; admits to having big-time gambling losses, curses kids seeking autographs, and just generally been a really bad guy. He also has been the best offensive player in baseball, with the most home runs (321), RBI (979), doubles (306), extra-base hits (636) and total bases (2,612) over the past eight seasons. Last year, playing in Chicago's spacious Comiskey Park, he batted .328 with 49 home runs and 152 RBI. In homer-friendly Camden Yards, he is a sure bet to hit at least 50 homers. But what is not a sure bet is that he will do so without creating turmoil within the team and embarrassment for the franchise. "You never know what you are going to get with this guy," said one former teammate in Chicago. A member of the Indians' organization put it this way: "Albert sucks the life out of a clubhouse." Belle is always one step away from a lawsuit. In fact, they had a court reporter at yesterday's news conference to transcribe notes, but I think it was to make Albert feel at home. Now, the Orioles' spin on things yesterday was that Belle changed when he left Cleveland two years ago, and that his tenure with Chicago has been much less tumultuous. In relative terms, that's true. He hasn't thrown any baseballs at photographers since then, but The Washington Times is taking no chances. We'll be sending artists to sketch Belle at games so we don't offend his sensibilities. But Belle was in court just last month on charges of domestic battery and property damage as a result of a July fight with a woman who said she was a former girlfriend. She dropped the charges (Belle also dropped telephone harassment charges against the woman) when he agreed to pay for damages. The woman charged that Belle punched her, knocked her down and ripped her phone out of the wall. "I think there are some misconceptions and some misunderstanding out there [about Belle]," Wren said. There have been a few misdemeanors in there as well. Of course, Belle's decision to come to Baltimore wasn't motivated by money. "It was a situation where I weighed out all my options, and I felt Baltimore was my best option," Belle said. Which makes sense, because $13 million does weigh more than $11 million. And staying in Chicago might have been a mistake. After all, Belle would have missed a chance to play for his favorite team as a youngster growing up. His favorite player? Eddie Murray. "I was fortunate enough to have a chance to play side by side with Eddie for a couple of years," Belle said, referring to their days together in Cleveland. The Orioles passed out quotes yesterday about how everyone is so pleased about Belle coming to Baltimore, including Murray, the team's bench coach. "I'm glad to have him on our team," Murray said. But he wasn't exactly thrilled one night with the Indians when Belle, in a foul mood over a bad game at the plate, failed to hit a cutoff man in a 2-1 loss to Kansas City. According to one member of the Indians organization, "When he got off the field, Eddie confronted him and said, `When are you going to start doing things that are important to the team?' Albert just went off on him, told him he was just an old man who can't hit anymore.” That was in the past, though. The old Albert. He has changed they say. He has matured. "He has made some mistakes," Wren said. "He has admitted those. And he has grown from them, and he is going forward." But if you were there to watch him nearly choke a newspaper columnist in Cleveland for no reason, hear him scream obscenities at Hannah Storm before a game during the 1995 World Series or simply see him curse out a kid looking for an autograph outside Camden Yards, you have to believe that we are talking about something deeper than maturity. Peter Angelos better pray it's just a matter of maturity. He is stuck with this guy for the next five years. There is no out in the contract like there was in Chicago, where Belle had the option of being a free agent if he was not one of the top three highest-paid players in the game. There is a no-trade clause as well. "There are no out clauses," Wren said. There may be a clause for a new pickup truck every Oct. 31. He tends to need a new one around that time of year.

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