CHICAGO -- Albert Belle became eligible for free agency Friday when the White Sox refused his demand for a $4.25 million raise over three years, then said he wants to remain in Chicago.
Belle's contract contains a unique provision allowing him to demand the White Sox keep him one of the three highest-paid players in baseball.
"I've said all along I was happy I'm in Chicago and I would like to stay in Chicago," Belle told The Associated Press. "I consider this a starting point. There's nothing to get all bent out of shape about."
"I'm going to leave it up to (agent) Arn Tellem and (owner) Jerry Reinsdorf to work out a deal," he added. "There are ways to work out things where both sides are happy."
After one of the best seasons in his career, Belle becomes the top outfielder available in a class that already includes Bernie Williams of the New York Yankees and Henry Rodriguez of the Chicago Cubs. Belle hit .328 and hit 49 home runs and 48 doubles. He led the AL in slugging percentage (.655) and total bases (399), and set club records for homers, doubles, total bases, extra-base hits (99) and RBIs (152).
He was second in the AL in doubles, homers and RBIs. He won a Silver Slugger award earlier this week.
"As a player, the first thing that's important is being in a work environment where you're happy," Belle said. "Over the last year in Cleveland, I lost that happiness. That's the main reason I left. It didn't have anything to do with dollars and cents. You can look at this situation, where the work environment was best for me, and I was able to go out and put up big numbers."
Belle signed a $55 million, five-year contract with Chicago as a free agent in November 1996. But his contract allows him to demand a raise if he drops out of the top three in salary.
He fell into a tie for fourth after Gary Sheffield received $7.5 million from the Florida Marlins and Los Angeles Dodgers to waive his no-trade clause and accept a trade to the Dodgers in May. Under the definition of salary in Belle's contract, he is tied for fourth at $10 million with the Cubs' Sammy Sosa, trailing Boston pitcher Pedro Martinez ($12,083,333), Atlanta pitcher Greg Maddux ($11.5 million) and Sheffield ($11,416,667).
"Albert enjoyed a tremendous second half and a season that ranks among the best offensive years in franchise history, but we are not going to allow anything to disrupt the on-field direction Jerry Manuel has established for this team," general manager Ron Schueler said in a statement.
"No one part of this team is larger than the whole -- the Yankees proved that in this World Series," Schueler continued. "However, we respect Albert's right to invoke the clause and we welcome him back if he chooses."
Belle has 30 days to test the free agency market, and can either sign with another team or return to the White Sox. Belle said he and Tellem will listen to all offers, but staying with Chicago is his first choice.
Besides his good relationship with Manuel, Belle said the White Sox aren't that far from being a playoff team. He also said he'd be willing to structure his contract so the White Sox would have the money to go after a top starting pitcher, their biggest need.
"I've had a chance to experience going to the playoffs. It's an unbelievable experience and I definitely want to be back in that situation and we aren't that far away. I don't think a lot of people realize that," Belle said.
"We aren't that many players away, and it's just a matter of are you willing to go the extra mile to get the players?"
While Belle will be in demand, he said there's one team that needn't bother calling: the Cleveland Indians. Belle left the Indians in 1996 on bad terms, and his feelings for Cleveland haven't improved since then.
"Those bridges have been burned. And I'm not in the construction business," he said. "I'm happy here in Chicago. And I feel confident things will work out."