The Baltimore Sun’s Kevin Van Valkenburg wrote an interesting column for the paper today; he took on the role of the Orioles front office as they “came clean” about the calamity that has been the last decade-plus in franchise history. In all honesty, it’s a nice but harmless piece – the kind I have come to expect from The Sun. It takes few jabs at the O’s and their management, but largely avoids criticism with any backbone. You can read the piece here.
But it was one, short, half-attack that really caught my eye. Again, these are the words of Van Valkenburg, as if Andy MacPhail or Peter Angelos were saying them… “Despite what we said publicly, it’s clear we took you for granted. Did we ever officially apologize for Albert Belle? If not, we should have.”
There’s a lot of things to say about Albert Belle. Now 10 years after his retirement, he is still a man that everyone in Baltimore has an opinion about. When his name comes up, eyebrows raise across the town. I get it, he was certainly a character.
But what I have never fully understood is why people here despise Belle so much, as if he destroyed this team and its legacy.
I come, time and time again, to this question: Why would the Orioles ever apologize for Albert Belle?
Was he a jerk? Absolutely. But he was also the best player this team had (perhaps short of Miguel Tejada in 2004-2006) in this 12 year streak.
Was his retirement shocking and painful (especially to the Orioles’ wallet)? Certainly. But Belle didn’t just walk away from the game because he was bored and leave the team out to dry.
The fact is, Belle’s career-ending injury and its aftermath has become an urban legend. It’s especially sour that Belle got paid every last cent of that massive contract despite playing less than half of it, but that is in part thanks to the Orioles’ famed insurance plan in case of such an injury.
What’s truly sad and pathetic about Belle’s tenure with the Orioles is that it represents the point at which the Orioles became a punchline, but only because the team allowed itself to. Belle’s injury and early retirement are what scared Peter Angelos into the tightwad he is today.
The anger at Belle is misplaced. The Orioles should never apologize for signing one of the most feared hitters in league history. They should apologize for the way a single player’s failure shaped a decade of baseball in the city.
On a sidenote… Belle has plenty to be angry about. Was he Hall of Fame caliber? Certainly, but a career cut short made him a laughing stock. And throughout his career he was dissed by media and fans alike. In 1995, Belle led the league in runs (121), doubles (52), home runs (50), RBI (126), and slugging (690). He also hit 317 and his team won 100 games – 10 more than anyone else in the majors. He lost the MVP race to Mo Vaughn, of the Boston Red Sox. Vaughn was no where near Belle’s numbers in any category except RBI, where they tied. And the Red Sox won just 86 games. Pathetic, Baseball Writers of America.