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Whether Albert Belle deserved to be suspended for five games, three games or not at all, only one question really remains: Will his penalty prevent him from breaking Roger Maris' home run record?

Belle, whose 25 homers lead the majors, and Cleveland reliever Julian Tavarez both saw five-game suspensions cut to three Tuesday by AL president Gene Budig.Belle, who knocked down Milwaukee second baseman Fernando Vina with a forearm, and Tavarez, who threw down umpire Joe Brinkman, both appealed after being penalized for a May 31 brawl between the Indians and Brewers.

At his current rate, Belle would hit 591/2 home runs, just short of Maris' mark of 61. Missing three games could be the difference in history and near-miss.

Belle's agent, Arn Tellem, claimed his client paid the price for past problems. The suspension was Belle's fifth in six seasons; the last time, he appealed a 10-day penalty for using a corked bat and had it reduced to six days in 1994.

"There is no question that this is an act of retaliation by the American League against Belle," Tellem said. "It is a disservice not only to Belle, but to the Cleveland Indians and their fans."

Belle will begin his suspension Friday against New York. Tavarez, a key member of Cleveland's bullpen, started serving his penalty Tuesday.

Gene Orza, associate general counsel of the players' union, was upset that Belle's penalty was cut instead of eliminated.

"This decision raises serious questions about the authenticity and legitimacy of the review process. If the decision in this case were to be based on the record - as it should have been - a conclusion that the collision was outside the bounds of acceptable conduct would be almost profane," Orza said in a statement that referred only to Belle. ". . . It remains, however, a regrettable decision, and we intend to raise its more unseemly aspects with the impartial arbitrator."

Nicholas Zumas replaced George Nicolau last year as baseball's arbitrator. But the expired collective bargaining agreement, which remains in force under a court order, says discipline for on-field incidents is not subject to review by an arbitrator, and that the decision of a league president is final in those matters.

Cleveland manager Mike Hargrove earlier said he might platoon Jeromy Burnitz and Herbert Perry to replace Belle, who's batting .317 with 66 RBIs.