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Belle Works Out, Not Worried About Image

February 20, 1997

SARASOTA, Fla. (AP) _ Albert Belle arrived early Thursday, unloaded bats from the back of his van and then pulled on the black warmup jersey of the Chicago White Sox for the first time.

He fouled off two pitches on his first swings of spring and then did what his new team expects from the game’s highest-paid player: drove a ball over the fence.

But can he change his bad-boy image?

``I can’t control that. I’m not worried about that. As long as I get an opportunity to go out and hit home runs, drive in some runs, steal a few bases, make a couple of great catches,″ Belle said following his first workout. ``That’s all I’m concerned about. I guess the image part will take care of itself.″

Belle was suspended five times in six seasons with the Cleveland Indians for a variety of outbursts, including charging the mound, throwing a ball at a fan and berating a reporter.

Belle also admitted he lost up to $40,000 gambling on sports. He released a statement Wednesday saying he never bet on baseball and refused to take questions on the subject Thursday.

Belle, who hit 98 homers the last two seasons, signed a $55 million, five-year deal with the White Sox in November, becoming baseball’s first player to average $10 million per season.

``Naturally being the highest paid is going to attract more attention and leave more room for criticism,″ Belle said. ``I’m not going to change. I’m going to take the same approach. I’ve been successful with it the last six years and hopefully will be successful with it for years to come.″

Belle’s first workout came on a day when the two players he’s supposed to join to form one of the game’s most potent lineups _ Frank Thomas and Robin Ventura _ were absent.

Thomas was taking care of unfinished business in Chicago, and Ventura has been sick with walking pneumonia. Both are expected in camp Sunday.

Lyle Mouton, who like Belle attended Louisiana State, was at an adjoining locker and in Belle’s batting group. He walked with Belle from field to field as cameras clicked and fans gawked.

``We go back 10 years, so it’s not a new face for me,″ Mouton said. ``It’s a big deal, but not to me. What’s big in my eyes is his offensive production. I can watch it every day and try to emulate it.″

Belle was even asked if he could ever become a role model after all his troubles.

``When I have kids, I want to be a role model for them. It’s nice that kids look up and idolize you and stuff,″ he said. ``But you have to realize that we are human beings. We aren’t perfect. We make mistakes just like everybody else.″

Belle has one big fan for sure. Mike Lopane, 44, made the 60-mile drive from St. Petersburg to watch him work out. Lopane, who was wearing an Indians cap and a shirt saying ``Focus On The Tribe,″ said he has collected 400 Albert Belle baseball cards.

``I think he’ll hit 61. I don’t know what year,″ Lopane said. ``There has been a lot of controversy, but his play has been right up at the top.″

Belle wouldn’t predict if he could hit 61, which would match Roger Maris’ major-league record.

``That’s a lot of homers to hit. That’s a lot of homers to think about hitting over the course of the season,″ he said. ``Maybe somebody will; maybe somebody won’t. Who knows?″

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