This Annotated Week in Baseball History: March 4-10, 2001

On March 8, 2001, Albert Belle’s de facto retirement began. But how much would this ultimately end up costing the Baltimore Orioles, their fans and the man formerly known as Joey?

I have a certain fondness for March 8, as it is the day I was born. Others who share this fondness include current players Juan Encarnacion and Ryan Freel, and retirees Dick Allen and Jim Rice. (I support the inductions of both Allen and Rice into the Hall of Fame so that March 8 might finally have some representation there.) For Albert Belle, however, March 8 is probably not remembered so fondly. It was on this day in 2001 that the Orioles—then Belle’s team—announced that he was, in their words, “totally disabled and unable to perform as a major league baseball player.”

For a moment we’ll leave aside the chance to make smartass remarks about current players to which that quote might refer and instead work on answering a few questions. First, what did Belle’s injuries cost the Orioles in dollars? Second, what did Belle’s injury cost the Orioles in production and wins? Finally, what did Belle’s injury cost the man himself?

For the Orioles, Belle had been signed to a five-year, $65 million dollar contract. Although that would still constitute a big contract these days given Belle was entering his age-32 season when he signed it, at the time it was huge. Belle was the highest paid player in baseball in 1999 and 2000, and he would remain in the top 10 in salary all five years of the deal, even as wages exploded around him.

In those first two years of the contract, Belle was good, but he didn’t deliver the performance Baltimore had expected. Belle’s OPS dropped by more than 100 points—all in the slugging department—and his batting average dropped from .328 to .299. He placed 10th in the AL in home runs, although even this was considered a disappointment after his second-place 49 homers the year before. In 2000, presumably beginning to feel the effects of the hip condition that would force his retirement, Belle’s OPS dropped 125 points from the year before, and he went 0-for-5 in stolen bases, a notable drop from his 17-for-20 performance in 1999.

Although Belle never played a major league game after 2000, he wasn’t actually off the Orioles roster until his contract expired in 2003. This was done for two purposes. For one, it allowed Belle to continue to collect the remainder of his contract, something that official retirement would have prevented. And by keeping Belle on the disabled list, the Orioles forced their insurance company to pick up part of Belle’s contract, generally reported at 70%. (As an aside, Belle’s contract is often cited as being the main factor in insurance companies’ reduction of contracts coverage.)

In total, the Orioles shelled out nearly $25 million for the two years Belle actually played, plus just under $12 million for the three years he did not. Taking that total amount, for two years of play the O’s paid $36,518,464. That’s a shade under $2,000 per plate appearance, roughly $120,000 per game, and more than $600,000 per home run.

Of course, that’s only money, a quantity that the Orioles and Peter Angelos have in spades. A question more relevant for the team’s fans is what it cost the Orioles in performance. Unfortunately for Orioles fans—I’m told they still exist, which is a testament to both human endurance and the loyalty of fans—the truth is it didn’t cost them very much. The Orioles were truly dire in 2001, pretty dire in 2002 and just plain old dire in 2003. Their cumulative record was 201-284, which averages out to 67-95.

The O’s right field situation was often as dire, maybe even more so, as their overall team (one year Brady Anderson posted a Value Over Replacement Player [VORP] of -21.5) but it is hard to say Belle would have made a real difference. A season of prime Belle instead of hapless Brady might have been worth somewhere in the order of 12-15 wins at the high end, but when a team is finishing more than 30 games out, such things aren’t exactly costing a team a lot of pennants.

But enough of kicking O’s fans when they’re down; let’s turn our attention to someone who arguably deserves such treatment: Belle himself. A number of factors conspired against Belle’s career totals. In addition to the early end of his career, Belle got off to a late start (he didn’t play in 150 games until he was 25) and two of his prime years were interrupted by the strike.

When his career came to its end six years ago, Belle had fewer than 400 home runs, 1,500 RBIs, 1,000 runs scored and a batting average under .300. Although some, including our own John Brattain, have argued that Belle belongs in the Hall of Fame, they seem to represent a minority opinion.

In 2006, Belle’s first year of eligibility, he managed just 40 votes, good for 7.7 percent of the vote, miles away from entry. This past election Belle fell to only 19 votes, just 3.5 percent, dropping him off the ballot. Arguably, his poor performance with the baseball writers had as much to do with his reputation as with his actual on-field accomplishments. (Belle had a notoriously poor relationship with the press and was also something of an all-around jerk.)

It seems reasonable to say that Belle’s early retirement—along with other factors—cost him a spot in the Hall of Fame by preventing him from reaching the kind of career totals that force voters to allow players in no matter what their personal feelings. (This leaves out for a moment the entire steroid issue, which also probably cost Belle some votes.) Three more years like Belle’s 2000 season would not have gotten him to 500 home runs, but would have brought him within 50 at age 36. It would have pushed him over 1,500 RBIs—in the top 50 all time—as well as to nearly 2,200 hits and 1,100 runs.

So who suffered most from Belle’s condition? Was it the Orioles and their insurance company, shelling out millions for almost no performance? Maybe the O’s fans for watching their team go from hapless to embarrassing? Or Belle himself for having lost a chance at immortality in the Hall of Fame? Whatever the answer, I’m sure I enjoyed March 8 more than they did.

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