That damn banner sure wasn't helping. On May 6, when the Texas
Rangers opened a six-game home stand against the Toronto Blue
Jays and the Cleveland Indians, the massive sign hanging beyond
the centerfield wall reminded everyone at The Ballpark in
Arlington that one of the Rangers was on history's doorstep: 498
HR RAFAEL PALMEIRO. But Palmeiro wasn't feeling comfortable at
the plate. Three days earlier he had been hit on the right elbow
by a pitch from Cleveland Indians righthander Jake Westbrook,
and he had been relegated to pinch-hitting duty for one game.
Back in the lineup, Palmeiro went 0 for 11 and then finally
hit number 499 last Thursday, off Blue Jays reliever Trever
Miller. After he failed to connect on Friday and Saturday
against the Indians, it was clear that the 38-year-old first
baseman, whose swing under normal circumstances is as
picturesque as any in the game, was pressing.
"From the time [the home stand started], I knew I had to hit two
home runs," Palmeiro said of the pressure to reach 500 in his
home ballpark. "I tried not to think about it too much, but it's
hard not to when you have a sign that's about 600 feet long
staring at you from behind the pitcher's release point." After 10
years of quietly rolling out statistically grand seasons as if
from an assembly line--yet never being counted among baseball's
elite--Palmeiro had his greatest achievement staring him in the
Then, on a 3-and-2 count with two outs in the bottom of the
seventh inning on Sunday, Palmeiro, in his final at bat of the
home stand, turned on a fastball from Cleveland righthander Dave
Elder and flicked it skyward down the rightfield line. For a
tense moment he feared that the Ballpark's crosswinds might push
the ball foul. But it stayed true, and Palmeiro became the 19th
player in baseball history to hit 500 home runs.
The at bat was classic Palmeiro. On a 1-and-0 count he took an
outside fastball for a strike, a pitch that he had learned to lay
off in the mid-1990s when he went from being a soft,
opposite-field contact hitter to a pull-hitting slugger. Palmeiro
then took two balls, one barely missing away. Only when Elder
threw a 3-and-1 shoelace-high fastball did Palmeiro betray his
anxiety, fouling off what would have been ball four. Then Elder
tried to sneak in a waist-high inside fastball, the kind of
mistake that the Cuban-born Palmeiro has ridden to the gates of
the Hall of Fame.
May 18, 2003
Fireworks filled the clear afternoon sky, above the banner that
was immediately updated to display Palmeiro's latest Cooperstown
credential. In the rightfield bleachers Father John Collet, an
instructor at the University of Dallas and Holy Trinity Seminary,
gripped the home run ball and held fast against a mob snatching
at the souvenir. (After the game Father Collet exchanged the
historic ball for Palmeiro-autographed items including a
baseball, a bat, a batting helmet, T-shirts and a jacket.) In a
private box about a dozen Palmeiro family members, including
Rafael's wife of 17 years, Lynne; his mother, Maria; and his
39-year-old brother, Rick, wept tears of joy. As their dad
rounded third, Palmeiro's two sons, Patrick, 13, and Preston, 8,
sprinted from the stands to the rightfield wall and removed a
green tarp to reveal a logo commemorating the event.
Palmeiro saw almost none of it. He said he recalled touching
first base, but "I don't remember what happened after that."
Never one for batter's-box preening or dandy home run trots,
Palmeiro circled the bases as he had virtually all 499 other
times, head lowered and face expressionless. You'd never have
guessed what he had just done, and that's how he would prefer it.
"It's not going to change who I am," he says of number 500. "I've
never been a guy who does any look-at-me-stuff. I'm not fancy."
He spits out the last word as if it were battery acid. "I've
always taken pride in playing the game the right way. If it meant
no one was really interested in me, then so be it. But I look at
videos of Mantle and Maris and DiMaggio--those guys weren't
flashy. I don't try to attract attention."
On the field, that is. Off it, Palmeiro's national profile is
such that he is, however oddly, best known to the casual fan as a
pitchman for Viagra. Notoriously tight-lipped on the subject--he
was reportedly paid $2 million for the endorsement by Pfizer, the
pharmaceutical company that manufactures the drug--Palmeiro
simply says that he's "happy to help people with problems."
His numbers, though, deserve attention. He finished the week with
a career .292 batting average, 2,666 hits, 1,600 RBIs, 1,481 runs
and almost as many walks (1,163) as strikeouts (1,187). He has
hit 43 or more home runs in four of the last five seasons and at
least 38 for eight consecutive years, breaking Babe Ruth's big
league milestone. From 1993 through 2002 his 395 home runs were
the third most in baseball, trailing only Sammy Sosa's 462 and
Barry Bonds's 437. Over that same span only Sosa drove in more
runs (1,206) than Palmeiro (1,154), and those two share the
longest current streak of 100-plus-RBI seasons (eight). If he
plays three more years--as he expects to--Palmeiro, with 529
career doubles at week's end, has a good shot to join Hank Aaron
as the only players with 3,000 hits, 600 doubles and 500 home
Given his durability, he should make it. Palmeiro has averaged
157 games in his 14 full seasons (not including strike-shortened
1994); from 1991 to 2002 he played in more games (1,845) than any
other player. Along the way the converted leftfielder developed
into a three-time Gold Glove first baseman (1997 through '99).
"He has been a model of consistency," says Blue Jays first
baseman Carlos Delgado. "He's not loud, but every year he'll hit
40 home runs and drive in 120, and he's a Gold Glover. What else
can you ask for? I'll take his career any day."
"He wows you when you play with him every day," says former
Baltimore Orioles teammate B.J. Surhoff. "He's very disciplined.
He hits lefthanders, he hits righthanders. He has a wonderful
rhythm and tempo to his swing. He makes it look so easy."
Yes, Palmeiro's lefthanded swing--the slight coil, the seamless
weight transfer, those lightning-quick hands--is smooth, but the
notion that hitting is easy for him, that Palmeiro rolls out of
bed and into the batter's box, couldn't be less true. "His is
really a high-maintenance swing," says Rangers hitting coach Rudy
Jaramillo. "Any double-tap swing is, because of the timing with
your hands and feet. Raffy's mastered it, but only because he
hones it every day."
Palmeiro's swing has four stages: 1) as the pitcher delivers,
Palmeiro slides his right foot back, tapping it close to his left
foot; 2) then he strides into the pitch while keeping his hands
square; 3) just before he plants the right foot, he moves his
hands back; 4) and finally, tapping his right foot again, he
whips his hands through the zone. "It's easy off a tee, so
everybody thinks they can do it," Jaramillo says. "But it's far
more difficult against live pitching. Plus, Raffy had to tweak it
when he started hitting for power."
To that end, in hitting drills Palmeiro swings bats affixed with
five-pound weights. His off-season training includes deep-water
running, to strengthen his knees and ankles against the wear that
fells many sluggers. And he maintains a near-maniacal batting
practice regimen, whether in the winter at the Colleyville,
Texas, home he shares with Lynne and their two boys, or during
the season, when he's always sneaking in an extra 10 minutes in
the batting cage. "He's not like a lot of guys, who do it only to
be seen doing it," Rangers manager Buck Showalter says. "Raffy's
doing it on his own. He's like the Groundhog Day of greatness.
But look at his numbers right now, and 500 home runs may be the
fourth most impressive stat on the page. Look at his career
on-base percentage [.374], for starters. For a guy with his
power, that's ridiculous."
Says Texas shortstop Alex Rodriguez, "With Raffy, it's impossible
to decide what he does best. Is that why he's flown under the
radar? Yeah, probably."
Not entirely, though. Playing in the company of teammates such as
A-Rod has contributed to Palmeiro's relative anonymity. When
Palmeiro broke in with the Cubs, in 1986, Ryne Sandberg owned
Chicago. When Palmeiro was traded to the Rangers before the '89
season, the star was Ruben Sierra, followed by Juan Gonzalez.
After Palmeiro signed with Baltimore as a free agent in '94, he
played alongside the iconic Ripken. Upon Palmeiro's return to the
Rangers in '99, he and Gonzalez were eclipsed by the American
League MVP season of catcher Ivan Rodriguez. Two years later
Palmeiro also lacks the resume-enhancing accomplishments that
most locks for the Hall of Fame have had. He has never won an MVP
award, or even finished higher than fifth in the voting. He has
never led the league in home runs or hit 50 in a season. (His
high is 47, in 1999 and 2001.) He has never been voted to the
All-Star Game starting lineup (and has been added to the roster
only four times). He has also never played in a World Series. All
of which is dismissed by Palmeiro. "I've been damn lucky to play
with the teammates I've had, from Ryne and [Cubs outfielder]
Andre Dawson to Cal and now Alex," he says. "They've made me a
better player. I just try to use it as a positive."
He's had plenty of opportunities, beginning with his trade from
the Cubs following the 1988 season--his first full year in the
bigs--in which Palmeiro hit .307 but lost a spirited duel with
the San Diego Padres' Tony Gwynn (.313) for the National League
batting crown. Because Palmeiro had hit only eight home runs, the
Cubs doubted his slugging potential and sent him to Texas in a
nine-player trade that brought reliever Mitch Williams to
Chicago. "I was bitter, because I felt they didn't give me a
chance," Palmeiro says of the Cubs. "But it was a wake-up call
for me. I realized that I'd have to produce more runs to stay in
the big leagues."
Palmeiro began lifting weights and adding the muscle that would
start sending his line drives over the wall in droves. "I focused
on my upper body, my arms, my wrists," he says. He also stopped
swinging at pitchers' first strikes, no matter how tempting. "If
it wasn't the pitch I could drive to right-centerfield or maybe
out the ballpark, it wasn't the pitch I wanted anymore," he says.
"I started taking more pitches, looking for ones more middle-in,
ones I could handle."
After his contract ran out following the 1993 season, Palmeiro
was stunned when the Rangers chose to sign free-agent first
baseman Will Clark, letting Palmeiro go to the Orioles.
(Portending his major league fortunes, Palmeiro had played in
Clark's shadow while the two were college teammates at
Mississippi State.) According to Palmeiro, Texas wanted Clark's
leadership, his willingness to get in teammates' faces; Palmeiro
kept to himself. "But those years in Baltimore were great," he
says. "It was there, when I hit my 300th home run [on July 17,
1998], that I first thought 500 was a possibility."
By the time he returned to the Rangers as a free agent, Palmeiro
had front-row-of-the-bleachers pop and a perfected swing that
made 500 an inevitability. In Chicago and his first Texas stint,
at old Arlington Stadium, Palmeiro had hit a home run every 29.3
at bats; in Baltimore, with the cozy rightfield fence at Camden
Yards, he'd almost halved that ratio (once every 15.7 at bats).
Similar dimensions at the Ballpark (which has a rightfield power
alley of 381 feet) further whetted his home run appetite. "The
best decision of my career was coming back," he says with a
While those fans have been treated to his power-packed (if
largely unheralded) return engagement, his teammates have seen
Palmeiro evolve as a vocal leader. He has reached out to younger
players, particularly his possible successor at first base, Mark
Teixeira, while embracing--and being embraced by--A-Rod. "You
come across so many guys that disappoint you once you play with
them. But the more you know Raffy, the more you want to learn
from him," says the shortstop. "He's the one guy here who has
more knowledge than I do. He knows where he belongs now. He's
going right past 500, and 600 is waiting there for him."
And Palmeiro can taste it, sweet and career-defining. He
interrupted a question about "coming down the stretch" to the
historic clout. "Oh, this isn't the stretch," he said quickly.
"No way. I've got plenty more, man." Palmeiro has waited too long
for the game to stop for him. He has already moved on to a bigger
goal. "As long as I keep my best shape for three or four more
years," he says, "600 isn't at all out of the question. It's a
matter of time."
The Power ELITE
Rafael Palmeiro is the only member of the 500-home-run club
without a league homer title to his credit, and one of the few
without an MVP award. However, he stacks up well in categories in
which consistency counts the most, such as seasons with 35 or
more homers (he ranks sixth among the club's 19 members) and
career hits (seventh).
HR MVP 35-HR
PLAYER HRS SEASONS TITLES AWARDS* SEASONS HITS
Hank Aaron 755 23 4 1 11 3,771
Babe Ruth 714 22 12 0 12 2,873
Willie Mays 660 22 4 2 10 3,283
Barry Bonds** 623 18 2 5 8 2,489
Frank Robinson 586 21 1 2 5 2,943
Mark McGwire 583 16 4 0 8 1,626
Harmon Killebrew 573 22 6 1 9 2,086
Reggie Jackson 563 21 4 1 4 2,584
Mike Schmidt 548 18 8 3 11 2,234
Mickey Mantle 536 18 4 3 6 2,415
Jimmie Foxx 534 20 4 3 10 2,646
Willie McCovey 521 22 3 1 6 2,211
Ted Williams 521 19 4 2 5 2,654
Ernie Banks 512 19 2 2 6 2,583
Eddie Mathews 512 17 2 0 6 2,315
Mel Ott 511 22 6 0 4 2,876
Sammy Sosa** 505 16 2 1 8 1,992
Eddie Murray 504 21 1 0 0 3,255
Rafael Palmeiro** 500 18 0 0 9 2,665
*MVP first awarded in 1931 (Ruth p lay ed 1914-35, Foxx 1925-45,
Ott 1926-47) **active (stats through Sunday)