A STAR IN THE SHADOWS THOUGH A TOP HITTER OF THE 1990S, THE ORIOLES' RAFAEL PALMEIRO REMAINS RELATIVELY OBSCURE

September 07, 1997

It's the type of situation a cleanup hitter lives for: bases
loaded, bottom of the eighth, game tied at 3. The scoreboard in
Oriole Park at Camden Yards is flashing like a pinball machine,
but the near-capacity crowd of 43,750 hardly needs to be cued.
The Baltimore Orioles are in the midst of a division race, and
the fans remember the solo home run that Orioles first baseman
Rafael Palmeiro launched onto the Eutaw Street concourse beyond
rightfield three innings earlier. They're standing and
rhythmically clapping as Palmeiro walks to the plate again.

Until now, it has been a typical day for Palmeiro--which is to
say he went through batting practice grousing about the quality
of his cuts, the feel of his bats and the offerings of the
practice pitcher. "We have a kind of running joke around here,"
says Cal Ripken Jr. "The more Raffy complains and the worse he
looks, the better he's going to do."

Considering that Palmeiro has been red-hot for two weeks,
disbelief ripples through the ballpark as the Kansas City Royals
decide to let their relief pitcher Hector Carrasco face
Palmeiro. The crowd noise is cresting. As Carrasco's first pitch
heads toward home, Baltimore outfielder Eric Davis calls, "Home
run!" from the bench. Palmeiro's swing--the picture of
efficiency--connects. Even in the din the clean, loud crack of
the bat can be heard. As the ball begins to ride toward the
rightfield concourse on a low arc, there's a nanosecond when the
clapping seems to stop and everyone just looks. A few of the
Orioles, unable to take the suspense, scramble up the dugout
steps thinking, Could it be?

It should be the game-winner if it goes, and a victory in this
game on Aug. 27 would keep the New York Yankees from cutting
into Baltimore's six-game lead in the American League East. As
Palmeiro takes a few uncertain steps toward first base, watching
the ball grow smaller and smaller, it's impossible to tell how
he's feeling. The look on his face is something between hope and
relief.

It would be interesting to take Palmeiro and five guys chosen at
random--say, two construction workers, a bus driver, a lawyer
and a waiter--dress them alike, put them in a mock police lineup
and ask a casual sports fan to pick the major league baseball
star. Palmeiro's peers unfailingly count him among the best
hitters in the game. But to many fans he's a familiar name they
can't quite place. Even though he has nine major league seasons
behind him and a few gray whiskers, the 32-year-old Palmeiro's
consistent excellence is routinely overlooked. "To me, he's
never gotten the respect he deserves," says Orioles second
baseman Roberto Alomar. "But baseball people know what Raffy
does for our team."

In the space of only a year Baltimore has remade itself from a
home-run-slugging crew into a pitching-and-defense club that's
likely to finish with the best record in baseball and the
distinction of having led the American League East wire to wire.
Though Palmeiro, who led the Orioles with 31 homers and 91 RBIs
at week's end, berated himself for batting only .260--he was a
.298 lifetime hitter entering the season--he's the closest thing
to an offensive axis that Baltimore has.

Since Aug. 15, when the Yankees drew within 3 1/2 games of the
Orioles, Palmeiro had slammed seven homers and driven in 15 runs
through Sunday. It was no coincidence that Baltimore had gone on
an 11-5 tear, or that by week's end it stood at 85-48 and had
stretched its division lead back to 6 1/2 games heading into
this week's four-game series in New York. "When Raffy heats up
like this, he's fully capable of carrying us," manager Davey
Johnson says. "But you'd never know if he's going good or bad
from just looking at him. Sometimes I think even he doesn't know
how great he really is."

Last week Palmeiro became the first player in Orioles history to
hit 30 home runs in three consecutive years. In the 1990s only
three players had had more hits than Palmeiro's 1,361 through
Sunday. Only four players had scored more runs than Palmeiro's
756. Only Ripken, baseball's alltime iron man, had played in
more games (1,199 to Palmeiro's 1,180).

After he left the Texas Rangers as a free agent following the
1993 season and signed a five-year, $30 million deal with
Baltimore, Palmeiro hit .304 and averaged 34 home runs and 107
RBIs in his first three seasons with the Orioles, including the
strike-shortened '94 schedule. In '96 he slammed 39 home runs
for the second straight year and drove in a career-best 142
runs, and Baltimore was the American League wild-card team.
Palmeiro was rated the second-best defensive first baseman in
the league (behind J.T. Snow, then with the California Angels
and now with the San Francisco Giants) in a Baseball America
poll of American League managers. Despite all of that Palmeiro,
who hasn't been an All-Star since '91, finished sixth in the '96
MVP voting. "It's laughable," Ripken says.

Palmeiro concedes that it helps--just a little--to know that his
All-Star exclusions can be attributed to the star-studded
position he plays and the charisma of his competition. At 6
feet, 190 pounds, he doesn't have the imposing presence of the
Chicago White Sox's 6'5", 257-pound Frank Thomas. He doesn't
launch tape-measure home runs as Mark McGwire did before being
traded by the Oakland A's to the St. Louis Cardinals in July. He
doesn't intimidate pitchers with a malevolent glare, the way Mo
Vaughn of the Boston Red Sox does. Palmeiro's at bats are
controlled, almost surgical. He does his damage with a compact,
lightning-quick swing. As Royals infielder Dean Palmer says, "It
always looks so effortless. But the ball just jumps off his bat."

Though Palmeiro claims he's not bothered by his lack of
recognition--"I've proven myself again and again," he says.
"What more can I do?"--his friends don't believe it. "It has to
hurt," Davis says.

Besides, the snubs fuel another of Palmeiro's underpublicized
traits: He's one of the most self-critical players in the game.
He's a pessimist and a worrywart, a chronic complainer who's
wont to say, "God, it's too hot to play baseball today," and
then pound out four hits. He's a perfectionist. Just last week
Palmeiro walked away from a desultory batting practice grumbling
to Davis, "Well that's great, just grrreat. I can tell this is
going to be one crappy night." Then the game began, and he
knocked in five runs.

With Palmeiro, it has always been this way. New York Mets
skipper Bobby Valentine, who was Palmeiro's manager with the
Rangers, says, "If our hitting coach, Tom Robson, sat down with
Raffy before the season in Texas and said, 'You're going to hit
.300 this year,' Raffy would say, 'Maybe, but I still can't hit
like Tony Gwynn.'" Palmeiro discards bats the way duffers
disgustedly change putters. His wife, Lynne, says if he's in a
batting funk for a few days, "he's liable to come home and say,
'I can't hit. I forgot how to hit!' He actually told me that
once. I said, 'Rafael, you can't just forget.' And he said, 'No,
I can't help it. I really think I did.'"

But that's Palmeiro. He's a snarl of contradictions. He stays in
top shape year round and studies videotapes of pitchers and of
his at bats. Yet as methodical as Palmeiro is, he's also
superstitious. He says he makes sure to hit the clubhouse
pregame buffet before day games because "doughnuts have two hits
in them, and rum cakes have a home run." If he drives the family
Jeep to the ballpark and hits a home run, he'll keep driving the
Jeep until his luck runs out--and then he may chew out the damn
thing. He quit appearing on the Orioles pregame radio show this
year because, he says, "they jinxed me, they jinxed me!

"That guy was after me all season, 'Can you do the show? Can you
do the show?'" Palmeiro says. "I don't like talking about
myself, but I finally said O.K. Well, sure enough, I went into
this huge slump. Something like 0 for a week. So when he came
back a couple weeks later, asking me to do the show again, I
said, 'Not a chance, man. Not...a...chance.'"

No wonder some Orioles jokingly say the only thing that prevents
them from labeling Palmeiro a crank or a neurotic is this: He's
not making all of it up. If there's been a recurring theme in
Palmeiro's career besides excellence, it's that he has often
felt underappreciated or rejected, even by the people he
reasonably expected to cherish him the most.

He felt that way during his college days at Mississippi State,
where he was a three-time All-America but was often overshadowed
by his more voluble teammate Will Clark. The pattern persisted
at Palmeiro's first major league stops, in Chicago with the Cubs
and in Texas. No matter how well he did, someone found something
wrong.

In his first full major league season, in 1988 with the Cubs,
Palmeiro hit .307 and challenged for the National League batting
title. But there were gripes from the front office about his
lack of power, and in the off-season he was sent to Texas in a
nine-player trade. During his five seasons with the Rangers,
Palmeiro hit .295 or better three times and in '93 had what were
then career bests of 37 home runs and 105 RBIs. Yet when he hit
the free-agent market that off-season, Clark dogged his steps
again. The Rangers, seeking more "leadership," signed Clark away
from the Giants with the same five-year, $26.5 million deal that
Palmeiro had turned down. Palmeiro felt betrayed.

Asked how he kept producing despite those disappointments,
Palmeiro points to two things. There was the faith that Orioles
owner Peter Angelos showed in him when he overruled all of his
baseball men at the time--manager Johnny Oates, general manager
Roland Hemond and assistant general managers Doug Melvin and
Frank Robinson--and pursued Palmeiro rather than Clark. ("Jeez,
that guy!" Angelos said of Clark. "I've looked at medicals for
30 years as a lawyer, and he had the injuries of an
infantryman!") Palmeiro says he also leaned on the lessons he
learned from his demanding father, Jose, a Cuban emigre who
moved his family of five from Havana to Miami in 1971, when
Rafael was seven, and later whip-cracked Rafael through the
after-school workouts that produced his sweet swing and
self-punishing mind-set. "He was very critical of me at times,
but he did it for my own good," Rafael says. "I think he knew I
could handle it."

Jose, when asked why he was never too tired to play with Rafael
on those days he came home to find the boy sitting on the stoop
with his glove and bat, says, "I was a bricklayer. My work makes
you strong. I'd get home, have a coffee, and we'd go to a park."
Jose, 68, admits he often told Rafael he would never be a major
leaguer.

Though Rafael denies it, Lynne says he often acts as though he
still hears Jose's voice in his head. "I think it's nice that
Rafael gives his dad so much credit for making him a
ballplayer," Lynne says. "But I always tell Rafael that this
didn't all just happen because of something someone showed him
when he was a teenager or a kid. There's something inside of him
that enabled him to succeed. It's inside of him."

So, knowing what you now know about Palmeiro, perhaps you'll be
surprised by what happened after he sent that first-pitch
fastball from Carrasco streaking toward the rightfield wall at
Camden Yards. It was the kind of moment that makes division
races memorable and convinces an aspiring championship team that
it really is charmed.

When the ball landed well beyond the 25-foot-high scoreboard in
rightfield, there was an explosion of noise, and Palmeiro ran
around the bases with his head down. When he arrived at home
plate, he had to fight to suppress a smile. B.J. Surhoff, who
scored on Palmeiro's blast, playfully bopped him twice on the
head, and later Davis affectionately squeezed Palmeiro's right
biceps and said, "Whoa," as if he were impressed. It was
Palmeiro's second homer of the night, the hit that won the game,
the blow that kept the Yankees far behind for another day. The
Baltimore crowd refused to stop roaring even after Palmeiro
disappeared into the dugout. The cheering went on and on, until
Palmeiro ran to the top step and obliged the fans with a
self-conscious tip of his cap.

"Was I excited?" he said the next day, sitting at his locker.
"Are you kidding? I think I'm still numb."

In Baltimore he thinks he's finally found a home. For once he
utters no lament. His smile suggests he really knows just how
good--and appreciated--he is.

COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS USHER Palmeiro has found a home at Camden Yards, but he still craves more of the spotlight. [Rafael Palmeiro] COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Palmeiro's compact but powerful swing had produced 31 home runs and 91 RBIs by week's end. [Rafael Palmeiro batting] COLOR PHOTO: VICTOR BALDIZON Jose's stinginess with praise helped make Rafael highly self-critical. [Jose Palmeiro]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)