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O's waiting for Albert to crumble

ORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - There are physicals, and there are physicals. In high school, sports physicals - at least for boys - have generally consisted of turning your head and coughing. For NASA's Space Shuttle program, it requires being able to handle extreme G forces. Then there is the Baltimore Orioles' physical - if you can walk and breathe, you can play. That may be an exaggeration, but based on the observations of Albert Belle on his first day of workouts this spring after suffering his degenerative hip injury last season, it couldn't require much more than that. OK, maybe swing a bat. Albert can still swing a bat. But run? He runs like me, and the only physical I can pass is an autopsy. Throw? He has an arm like a rifle - an air rifle. If his soft toss were any softer, his nickname would be Charmin. Maybe Albert was just being cautious. He begged off talking about how he felt after his first workout, though he has been a regular Mr. Rogers since he arrived in camp. But he looked like he was in considerable discomfort throughout much of the morning workout, after passing the much-awaited team physical yesterday morning. Actually, a baseball physical does consist of blood and urine tests; an oral exam; a skin cancer exam; an eyes, ears, nose and throat exam; and, finally, an orthopedic exam to determine range of motion. Albert's range of motion appears to be somewhere between slow and motionless. He jogged with a limp during exercises and appeared to wince at times while catching balls. "I thought he looked a little limited in his running, but it's only the first day," manager Mike Hargrove said. A little limited? If he were any more limited, he'd be Don Zimmer. This is the state of the 2001 Baltimore Orioles: The best news the organization could have gotten yesterday would have been that Albert failed his physical. That would have meant the club would be off the hook for more than two-thirds of the remaining three years and $39 million of Albert's contract, with insurance paying that amount. They won't admit it publicly, but they were rooting for a Big F for the Big A. Throughout the winter, owner Peter Angelos referred to Albert's hip problem as a potentially career-ending injury, and Albert himself told one baseball executive not long ago that he believed the Baltimore owner was trying to get him to retire. Where did Albert get the idea that Angelos wasn't his biggest fan? Perhaps from the time he told the Baltimore Sun that signing Albert was a "mistake." The eraser for Angelos' "mistake" is Albert's hip, an arthritic condition that was diagnosed in September as inflammation of the bursa sac in his right hip. It won't get better and likely can only get worse - which the Orioles are counting on between now and whenever the deadline is that they will be responsible for Albert's $13 million salary this season. So the Albert watch is on in camp. His every limp will be observed as club officials wait and see whether he basically breaks down before the season starts. "We have to see how he plays the outfield and see how he runs," said Syd Thrift, vice president of baseball operations. "We'll have to see how he reacts to baseball activities." He can probably handle some baseball activities, such as counting his money. Anything much beyond that is up in the air. Albert still appears to be able to hit. He looked a little shaky in his first trip in the batting cage against live batting practice pitching, hitting a few weak ground balls. But he warmed up after that and drove some hard line drives into left field. But this fierce slugger, whose ritual before each pitch has always been like some kind of martial arts exercise - the swinging of the bat several times while stepping out of the box, the digging in with his feet in the box, and the hand held up telling the pitcher to wait - walked over to a golf cart between his turns in the box and sat down, while his teammates, as is the custom, stood around the cage talking to each other, watching whoever was in the cage, or practicing their own swings. "There is a long time to go in spring training to see what Albert Belle can do," Thrift said. Or to see what he can't do. That is what the Orioles are most interested in.

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