July 2, 2005


Call Him Steady Ballgame (William Gildea, July 2, 2005, Washington Post)

As quietly as his exquisite 20-year career has unfolded, Rafael Palmeiro is approaching a milestone that screams for attention. The sweet-swinging left-handed first baseman of the Orioles is just days from reaching one of baseball's benchmarks, 3,000 hits. Only 25 major leaguers in history have that many. It's an exclusive club that Palmeiro is about to join, but not nearly as exclusive as the one he will enter simultaneously. Only three players have amassed 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. With 563 home runs, Palmeiro is about to squeeze in with the immortals.

Unarguably, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays are immortals of the game. The third, Eddie Murray, a teammate of Palmeiro's on the 1996 Orioles, was a first-ballot Hall of Famer and one of the greatest switch hitters ever. Aaron, Mays, Murray and, very soon, Palmeiro. This is a club that does not often take in new members. One way to put the feat in perspective is to think of all those famous players who failed to accomplish it, beginning with Babe Ruth.

"Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray, three of the best players of all time, to be in that category is just mind-boggling to me, really," Palmeiro said the other day by his locker at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. All it has taken is 20 years worth of the following: consistency, power, few injuries, few slumps and an even temperament. [...]

Many have approached the 500-3,000 club. But, yes, Palmeiro needed the fates as well as that which Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli described as the essential virtue. "One word," he said. " 'Consistency.' "

It was a special kind of consistency, at that.

"You can be consistent," Palmeiro said, "but you have to have a certain level that you have to maintain. I think I've maintained a pretty good level throughout my career. Not great-great. I can't put myself in a category with some of the great players of all time, but I've been pretty good consistently throughout my career."

His fame might have been greater had he played for the Yankees, had he ever played in the World Series, had he been to more than four all-star games. He never hit 60 home runs in a season; he never hit 50 in a season. He rarely led the league in any major offensive category. He was never the "main man" on any club: In Texas, there were Alex Rodriguez and Pudge Rodriguez; in Baltimore it was Cal Ripken and now Miguel Tejada. Palmeiro has played Gehrig to assorted Ruths.

But not unlike that other affable first baseman, Gehrig, Palmeiro has often managed to step forth from someone else's shadow and claim a certain appreciation. He played almost every day from 1988 through 2004. He drove in more than 100 runs 10 of 11 years, the exception being the strike-shortened 1994 season. His home runs totals ranged between 38 and 47 over nine seasons. Palmeiro has always produced, an American trademark. As many have, he made it to America and surpassed his dreams.

He was 6 years old when his parents took him and his two brothers by boat from Cuba to Miami. There, at the neighborhood field, Roberto Clemente Park, Jose Palmeiro, a construction worker who loved baseball, taught his son the fundamentals of the game. He became an all-American at Mississippi State, began his major league career with the Cubs and spent most of his time in two stints with both the Rangers and the Orioles.

"At one point I felt I have a shot, I have a shot at 500 home runs and I have a shot at 3,000 hits, but I can't pinpoint when that was," he said. "It might have been four or five years ago. But what's made it more special for me is that we're winning and we've been in first place most of the year."

Palmeiro, 40, considers himself blessed in part because his parents have followed his entire career and because these days his sons, Patrick and Preston, are often with him in the Orioles' clubhouse before games. With his chatter, Tejada is the dominant presence there; the quiet Palmeiro blends in. He is 6 feet tall, about 215 pounds. In the white jersey, jeans and running shoes that he wore to the park the other day, he could have passed, perhaps, for a neighbor on your block about to cut his lawn.

In Baltimore, he is loved.

The Cubs dumped him because he was just a singles hitter. Of course, he was also just 24.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 2, 2005 11:26 PM

It is all that Viagra.

RP is one of those under-the-radar type of guys. I think HR milestones (400 and 500) these days are not as important. In the past 10 years, too many ballplayers are juiced up and they hit those marks too easily (although I believe there are less 400 HR hitters than 3000 hit hitters). I believe RP's 3,000 hits is much more meaningful and significant. Sure he was helped by the DH, so what?

I think 3000 hits is now the best indicator of greatness, who is next Biggio? For pitchers, it is 300 victories and I think we won't get that for another 20 years.

Posted by: pchuck at July 3, 2005 10:54 AM

A decision right up there with Brock and Maddux.

Posted by: Rick T. at July 3, 2005 11:04 AM

Palmeiro has what is without question the most farcical Gold Glove award in the history of baseball. And will remain so even if MLB lasts for 1000 years...

Posted by: b at July 3, 2005 12:16 PM

'...his sons, Patrick and Preston,...'

It's just terrible how those Hispanic immigrants don't want to assimilate into the American mainstream, isn't it?

Posted by: bart at July 3, 2005 2:10 PM

Oh, come on, guys...

The poor Small Bears had two pretty good first sackers at that time. They had to choose one. They chose Mark Grace, who, while not Raffy, had a pretty good career.

Posted by: Dave at July 3, 2005 3:10 PM

B: more than half of gold glove awards are farcical.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at July 3, 2005 4:12 PM

Has Palmero ever played on a World Series team.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at July 3, 2005 5:13 PM

Robert: Most are a joke in the sense that once you win, you're quite possibly going to win for the rest of your career. Palmeiro's was the all-time champ of legacy voting, as he played something like 25 games in the field that year...

Posted by: b at July 3, 2005 9:54 PM

Don't let his Clintonesque denial in front of the Senate fool you, he's a steroid user. His post Cubs power surge happened the same time as he was teammates with noted Steroid pusher Jose Canseco. Plus one of the more embarassing side effects of steroids is impotence, and as has been mentioned above, Raffy is the major spokesman for the anti-impotence drug.

Posted by: MarkD at July 4, 2005 10:54 PM

His power surge began before he played with Canseco, his younger son after his supposed impotence would have begun.

Posted by: oj at July 4, 2005 11:13 PM