Time Running Out For Albert Belle

Monday, March 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — If Albert Belle could run to first base and slide into second, that would probably be enough to prolong his endangered major league career.

At this point, Belle isn't healthy enough to perform even those routine baseball skills. His struggle to rebound from a serious hip injury has caused the Baltimore Orioles to consider the possibility of starting the regular season without him.

Belle missed a fourth straight exhibition game Monday because of a degenerative right hip. He did not make the trip to Port St. Lucie for a game against the New York Mets, informing manager Mike Hargrove in the morning that he was again unable to play.

On Sunday, the outfielder declared himself unable to play in Vero Beach against the Los Angeles Dodgers after receiving medical treatment in the morning. Hargrove said that he is preparing for the worst.

``Given the events of yesterday and today, if somebody had a gun to my head and said if you don't give me an answer right now I'm going to shoot you, it would be difficult to project Albert on our 25-man roster,'' Hargrove said. ``But that's not anywhere near the (final) decision.''

Belle's quest to maintain his post in right field appears to be overly ambitious, and Hargrove won't use him as a designated hitter if the slugger can't run 90 feet to first base or slide into any other base. Belle has been hampered by a restrictive limp this spring and has yet to attempt to slide.

``If he can't run well, unless he hits the ball out of the ballpark, he's going to be a liability,'' Hargrove said.

The Orioles have no reason to believe Belle will ever return to form because of the nature of his ailing hip.

``The thing of it is, this isn't an ordinary injury. It isn't a muscle that's hurt and you bring it along slowly,'' Hargrove said. ``This is a hip, from what I understand bone on bone, and there's nothing in there to heal.''

All that's left for Belle is the hope that he can beat the odds and rebound from the injury.

``We'll give it another day and see what happens,'' he said Sunday.

``If someway, somehow the situation doesn't get any worse, if it gets to the point where he can play and sustain that playing time and be productive,'' Hargrove said, ``we owe it to him and to ourselves to find out.''

But the Orioles must find out soon whether Belle can play. If he can't, the makeup of the outfield will dramatically change and Delino DeShields and Jeff Conine will suddenly become valued assets rather than trade bait.

``If it comes down to Albert can't play, we'll have people ready,'' Hargrove said. ``I would think that we'd like to have a grip what is what we're doing as far as Albert is concerned no later than mid-spring training. I think we need to have a pretty clear idea if this is going to work or not.''

Belle, 34, has long been considered one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball. He was enjoying another fine season in 2000 until July, when he developed an inflamed bursa sac in the right hip pointer.

He let the injury go untreated, missed 20 games in September and finished with 23 homers, snapping a streak of nine straight seasons with at least 30.

Belle has three years left on the $65 million contract he signed before the 1999 season, and will receive the remaining $39 million whether he plays or not.