|Traffic | Weather | Your account||Movies | Restaurants | Today's events|
Palmeiro a slugger in the shadows
Seattle Times baseball reporter
They sneaked up on us, Rafael Palmeiro and his enduring place in history. Turns out everything we thought we knew about him, for so many years, was all wrong.
We underestimated him, is what it was. Because he made it look easy. Because he played on so many bad teams. Because he never was quite the best of his day, whatever day it was.
But while other shooting stars burned out or blew up, just look at him now: Quiet, steady, unassuming Raffy comes with the Orioles tonight to Seattle, his city of dreams and destruction, on the brink of immortality.
Two more hits, and he will become the 26th player to reach 3,000, and the fourth player in the 3,000-hit/500-homer club.
Those are Cooperstown numbers, and it's time for Planet Baseball to wrap its arms around that concept:
Rafael Palmeiro, Hall of Famer.
"He has to be," said Baltimore's closer, B.J. Ryan, at the All-Star Game in Detroit. "I mean, that's about as elitist company you can get."
Ryan was talking about Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray, the three members of the 3,000/500 club. If Palmeiro, soon to be 41, decides to play beyond this season (he hasn't made up his mind yet), he could reach 600 home runs, a realm that currently includes only Aaron, Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds and Willie Mays.
"If you watch him," Ryan continued, "it's not fantastic. He's not going to hit 500-foot homers. But he's gone out there and done it day in and day out for 18 years now. I think greatness is defined by longevity."
Ryan touched it all right there — Palmeiro's relentlessly unassuming assault on history.
He has never been on the disabled list, not even once, in a career that started in 1984. But he has also never been voted an All-Star starter, won a most valuable player award or batting title, led a league in runs batted in or home runs, or played in a World Series.
But here's what Palmeiro has done: Played at least 152 games every full season of his career. Had at least 38 homers and 100 RBI in nine straight years, and at least 20 homers for 14 straight years. Had two 47-homer seasons, joining Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ken Griffey Jr. as the only left-handed hitters do that twice. Won three Gold Gloves. Ranked in the top 16, all-time, in homers, extra-base hits, total bases, doubles and RBI.
"It's crazy," said Baltimore second baseman Brian Roberts, speaking specifically of the 3,000-hit, 500-homer combination. "He'll be one of, what, only three people that have done that so far? In the history of the game?
"He doesn't get near the respect he deserves for that kind of accomplishment. Who knows when that will happen again? Maybe it will be soon, but that's the hardest thing to do, maybe, in the game."
"What he's doing is amazing," added Yankees outfielder Gary Sheffield. "I can't comprehend those numbers."
Seattle figured it out earlier than most, because the city has seen Palmeiro at his best. He has 16 homers in 150 at-bats at Safeco Field, more than any other opponent, plus nine more at the Kingdome. Two years ago, it looked like Palmeiro might end his career replacing Edgar Martinez as the Mariners' DH, until Edgar re-upped in 2004, and Palmeiro signed for a second stint in Baltimore.
"When we play his teams, he always hits the ball over my head," said Ichiro admiringly. "I always think, he's great. I respect him a lot. No way I'm going to hit 500 homers; maybe in practice. It's just a great accomplishment."
Other superstars in the twilight of their career, and on the verge of milestones, have been brought to the All-Star Game for a ceremonial bow. No one saw fit to invite Palmeiro, who is hitting .269 with 15 homers and 50 runs batted in, to Detroit.
He always seems to be under the radar, out of the spotlight. Sheffield said that Palmeiro's swing is so smooth, so seemingly effortless, it's the most difficult in the league to judge the flight of the ball off, and also the easiest to under-estimate.
Former teammate Ivan Rodriguez said in Detroit that Palmeiro has had a "quiet" 3,000 hits. That's a replication of a recent comment by another former teammate, Mike Mussina, who told the Miami Herald that Palmeiro has hit "a quiet 500 home runs."
Quiet is just fine with Palmeiro, who by all accounts doesn't much like all the fuss over his impending milestone.
"What I admire most is his demeanor," Roberts said. "He doesn't waver much. People talk about staying on an even keel. He's as good at it as anyone I've ever seen. That's something we can all learn from."
Palmeiro has played on four teams that lost 90 or more games, and three of his four home ballparks — Wrigley Field, The Ballpark in Arlington and Camden Yards — are hitters' paradises, perhaps lessening his reputation.
Fans and the media have seized every opportunity to crack wise about his Viagra endorsement. Palmeiro has had to deal recently with steroids allegations from former Texas teammate Jose Canseco, which Palmeiro vehemently denied under oath before Congress at a hearing March 17, and everywhere else.
But Palmeiro just keeps rolling, and raking. Now he's in the thick of a pennant race again with the surprising Orioles, who come to Seattle in second place in the rugged AL East, ahead of the Yankees and just two games behind the Red Sox.
After a slow start, Palmeiro is heating up. In his last 88 at-bats, he is hitting .307 with seven homers and 22 RBI. He helped the Orioles take three of four in a crucial series with Boston before the All-Star break with three homers and nine RBI. The performance left him on the brink of 3,000 hits as the Orioles arrive in Seattle for four games.
"It's fun to watch, and it's going to be a piece of baseball history," said Ryan. "You get to be there and watch in person. You'll be on the field congratulating him and shaking his hand. It will be fun for everyone."
Roll around the numbers in your head for a bit. Let them settle in. And get used to the feel, the texture, the legacy of this:
Rafael Palmeiro. Three thousand hits.
Hall of Famer.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company