How will Chicago sports fans get along, now that it's over?

No, not that whole Michael-Scottie-Phil thing that's been a brief distraction the past few weeks.We're talking about the end of a real Windy City era, the curtain being brought down on the "nice" Albert Belle.

This undoubtedly stunning news was confirmed by Chicago White Sox general manager Ron Schueler: Belle has officially returned to a policy of unrepentant surliness. He told the club he is through cooperating with the media, even though Chicago reporters can recall only five true interviews His Joyness gave last season and had honored his request to leave him alone before games this year.

"He's going back to being ornery," Schueler said. "He said last year wasn't him, that he does better when left alone."

Belle debuted with the White Sox last year, spoke a few times with reporters during spring training, and hit .274 with 30 home runs and 116 RBIs. Statistically, it was his worst year since 1991, when he split time between Cleveland and Class AAA Colorado Springs.

He started this year batting .151 with one homer and five RBIs in the first 15 games for the sinking Sox, who also have been run aground by poor starts from Frank Thomas and a dreadful pitching staff headed by Jaime Navarro. Since reverting to full surliness mode, Belle has hit .306 with 15 homers and 50 RBIs in his last 56 games.

So what impact will Belle's worsening mood have on attendance at Comiskey Park? Not much, since the thoroughly uninteresting White Sox are drawing only 15,690 per game. That average leads only Detroit, Minnesota and Oakland in the 14-team American League.

In a year in which Major League Baseball attendance is up 7.7 percent, the White Sox's average has dropped 26 percent, the worst per-game decline in the AL. Team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf must find other sources of revenue to keep his NBA champion Chicago Bulls together.

Fans haven't exactly flocked to see Belle ignore or berate them since Reinsdorf's silly decision to throw a five-year, $55 million contract his way in November 1996. The contract forced fellow owners to throw up their hands in disgust and end efforts to win salary concessions from the players union, which makes accepting the money the best thing Belle has done for baseball. But he has reneged on his agreement with Reinsdorf to foster a more warm and cuddly persona in Chicago, not that anyone else really believed it possible.

And if the Sox don't like it, despite 55 million reasons to feel otherwise, Belle says that's simply too bad.

"What is there to be happy about?" Belle asked "Chicago Sun-Times" reporter Joe Goddard this week in his apparent farewell interview. "All that matters is winning. We're being told to be more fan-friendly and work with the media and all that other stuff, but what good does it do when you're not winning?

"If we win, then being friendly will take care of itself. The fans will love the Chicago White Sox and we'll love the fans."

REST FOR RIPKEN? With his consecutive games streak at 2,550 and his bat in an 11-for-58 (.190) slump over the past 15 games entering the weekend, pressure is mounting on Baltimore's Cal Ripken Jr. to take a day off. Ripken, who turns 38 in August and has played every game for 16 years, will hear none of it.

"It seems like some people don't seem to think that `The Streak' is a good thing," Ripken said. "I say hitting is hitting, and it's not a matter of `The Streak.' I haven't really gotten it going, but it's been this way before."

Over his past 162 games, Ripken is batting .253 with 12 homers and 69 RBIs, and has made 13 errors. Not even Ripken knows whether an occasional day off might now be rejuvenating, but there are troubling signs that his performance is slipping. His 1998 statistics (.254-5-33 and three errors in 72 games) might be passable if his team were winning. But the cold, hard facts are that light-hitting shortstop Mike Bordick has more extra-base hits and that Ripken's defensive range and bat speed have diminished markedly.