Palmeiro a pillar of strength, humility

Palmeiro a pillar of strength, humility

BALTIMORE -- Not even in his wildest dreams, not even when he was on a boat from Cuba to the south Florida coast with his protective parents, two brothers and nothing else -- no clothes, possessions or money -- did Rafael Palmeiro ever envision being Here.

And Here to Palmeiro is probably different that what here is to most of his critics. Here for Palmeiro is being a successful professional baseball player who had enough skills to make sure his family wanted for nothing; making sure his kids didn't have to protect their mitts because Santa Claus wasn't bringing another one; to make sure he would be recognized as a winner.

He has accomplished those feats. His two boys, Patrick and Preston, are frequent visitors to the Orioles' clubhouse and probably have little idea what dad went through to get Here. The Orioles thought enough of a then-39-year-old Palmeiro to bring him to Baltimore for what has transformed into a run toward greatness.

Palmeiro has become the fourth player in baseball history to reach 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, cementing his status as one of the game's greats. He joins Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray in that club. For his fans, that's where Here is.

For Palmeiro, however, Here has never been about numbers or stats or piling up home runs in this generation of smaller ballparks, subpar pitching and performance enhanced players.

He is still just a bit over 200 pounds and his physical stature has never been imposing. When he walks in the Orioles' clubhouse in jeans and sneakers, he resembles more a weekend warrior more than a future Hall of Famer. But there he is, approaching 600 home runs without ever having a 50-home run season. And there he is, amassing 3,000 hits with just one 200-hit season to his credit.

For Palmeiro, Here has been about consistency and perseverance.

"I don't really focus too much on the numbers," he said recently. "I think once I am done playing baseball and have retired, I can look back and review it, I guess, and soak it in. At this time, the main focus for me is to take each day as it comes and try to do the best that I can to be productive and help the team win that day."

Modest sentiments coming from a player who has put up better than modest numbers. And if there is anyone who could walk anonymously amongst baseball's greats, it's Palmeiro.

Pure Palmeiro 3,000/500 Club

But subtle emergence has been a theme of Palmeiro's career. It can be argued that Palmeiro was never the best player on his team at any point in his career. It can be argued that Palmeiro is overshadowed by Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and other standouts of his generation.

Yet Palmeiro still has vivid memories of riding on that boat from Cuba with his parents, Jose and Maria, with nothing to his name, and making a permanent home in a working-class neighborhood in north Miami. His humility is a deeply embedded characteristic. It was Jose who first discovered his son's immense baseball talents. Rafael just liked to play.

Like many Spanish-speaking youths in Florida who were first-generation Americans or immigrants, Palmeiro was captivated by the sport of baseball. Playing at Roberto Clemente Park, Palmeiro took his prized possession -- his first glove -- and began playing ball with local kids on the brown, grassless fields.

"In my world, baseball was my life," he said. "For my family, it was a way of life for us. We played baseball all the time. If we weren't playing in a game, we were at the ballpark practicing. Our lives were just baseball.

"I had a pair of spikes, nothing to talk about. I didn't feel like I had to show them off. I had one glove and I took care of it like it was my best friend."

Rafael and his friends would make the trek to Miami Stadium and chase down home run balls from Orioles' Spring Training matches and used them for their games. Raffy led a rewarding childhood because it revolved around baseball.

Palmeiro insists that power was always part of his game, despite his wiry frame. He whipped balls deep over the right-field fence while at Jackson High School in Miami and the outfielder was good enough to become an eighth-round draft pick of the Mets in 1982.

Jose Palmeiro wanted desperately for his son to have a college education and taking the Mets' bonus offer wasn't even a consideration when Palmeiro was deciding his future. The Universities of Miami, Oklahoma and Mississippi State offered Palmeiro scholarships and he made the most unlikely choice, playing for MSU, located in the small town of Starkville, Miss., in the eastern part of the state -- about 30 miles from the Alabama border.

Palmeiro was mesmerized by the atmosphere of a MSU-Ole Miss baseball weekend series and the Cuban-born Palmeiro embraced the deep south in the mid-1980s.

In Palmeiro's eyes, Starkville offered what any big-city university could, an opportunity to play baseball. At Mississippi State, with teammates such as Will Clark, Bobby Thigpen and Jeff Brantley, Palmeiro was a three-time All-American and won the first Triple Crown in Southeastern Conference history.

"I went to a public school in Miami, it wasn't the greatest college preparation for me," he said. "So for me, baseball came first and school came second. Obviously, knowing now what I know now, I would have taken school more seriously. I did what I could to be able to pass class and play baseball. You have to take advantage of the opportunity by getting a good education. I took it seriously, but I was there to play baseball."

The Cubs took Palmeiro 22nd in what has arguably become the greatest draft class of all time. The Milwaukee Brewers took current Oriole B.J. Surhoff first and the Giants selected Clark second. Among those taken ahead of Palmeiro were Bonds, Bobby Witt, Barry Larkin and Walt Weiss.

Palmeiro admits that making the adjustment to professional baseball was difficult. The Cubs thought they were getting a power hitter who could be their first baseman of the future, but what they got what a contact hitter who launched just 25 home runs in his first 258 games in Chicago, although he did make the All-Star team in 1988.

"I have always had the ability to hit home runs," he said. "But when I made the transition to professional baseball, the transition from the aluminum to the wood bat, I wasn't a big, strong guy, so for me it took a while to make the adjustment. Hitting coaches started tweaking my swing and wanted me to be more of a level type of hitter. I have always been a line-drive type of hitter. Just kind of lost my approach, and that's what got me here."

The Cubs were preparing a pennant run and packaged Palmeiro with two players, including Jamie Moyer, to the Texas Rangers for reliever Mitch Williams and five other players in December 1988.

It was in Texas that Palmeiro emerged as one of the game's most accomplished hitters. He didn't hit for power right away, but as he developed his strength, combined with his bat speed and picturesque swing, Palmeiro emerged as an full-fledged All-Star.

In 1993, Palmeiro hit .295 with 37 home runs and 105 RBIs in the final year of his contract with Texas. At 29, he was one of the game's premier first basemen and free agents. He made the mistake of assuming that the Rangers would re-sign him and at a Mississippi State alumni benefit, he told career contemporary Clark, who had just completed his contract with the Giants, that he was talking to the Rangers. But so was Clark, who did not reveal that information.

Clark signed a five-year deal with Texas, leaving Palmeiro to fish the free-agent market for himself. For years, he was angry at Clark, not only for signing with Texas, but for keeping it confidential.

"I trusted him and we were talking about it, I just felt comfortable talking to him about our situation," Palmeiro said. "I wasn't aware that he was also negotiating with the Rangers. At the time I didn't understand how the system worked. But I cannot fault him for what he did; when you're a free agent everything is fair game, anything that's out there. It was the best offer. It was the best offer that he had gotten, so he took it."

Palmeiro was courted by the Orioles, whose first baseman the year before was Randy Milligan. He signed a five-year deal during the prime of his career and he helped bring the organization back to prosperity as the O's reached the playoffs in 1996 and '97. He hit 182 home runs in his first stint with Baltimore and became a fan favorite.

"We had some good years here," he said. "It was a tremendous run. It was fun. I finally understood what it means to play the season, do the best you can and not give away any games, because once you get to the playoffs, it's all worth it. You go through the season and go through the motions, but you don't have an appreciation of what it takes until you get to the playoffs."

But just as quickly as the Orioles returned to respectability and Palmeiro was the team's premier star, it was gone. After the 1998 season, he couldn't agree with a new contract with Orioles owner Peter Angelos and took less money to return to Texas. Some Orioles fans remain bitter about losing Palmeiro.

"Peter and I not communicating well enough. I wanted to stay here," he said. "The whole thing with Baltimore took so long to develop, to try to get to where I wanted. The Rangers came in, it was for less money. It wasn't like I was using the Orioles' offer to get something more from the Rangers."

In his second stint in Texas, Palmeiro emerged as more than just an above-average player. He set personal highs with 47 home runs and 148 RBIs in 1999. He hit 47 again in 2001. Two years later, with Texas beginning to decline as a team, the focus was on Palmeiro as he approached 500 home runs. He reached the milestone on May 11, 2003, with a shot off Cleveland's David Elder.

He has since returned to Baltimore, and has continued to pile up awe-inspiring numbers. And as his career reaches its sunset, numbers began to define his career more and more. That's not the way he would prefer, but he knows that's the way it has to be.

Aaron is identified by 755, Rose by 4,192, Mays by 660, Clemente by 3,000. As much as he ignores numbers, Palmeiro knows he will be at autograph shows 10 years from now signing his grand total of dingers on each ball.

"I don't know that the milestone puts me in a different class," he said. "I've played for a long time and I have been pretty good for a long time, and been pretty healthy. There are a lot of great hitters in the 3,000 club. Hitters way better than I ever been. It's a special group and not many people are in it. I am very honored to be a part of it."

But 500-3,000 is hardly how Palmeiro wants to be remembered. He wants to finally win a championship. He wants to be known for being a team player and not putting up individual numbers. But that's out of his control. His legacy will be molded by others.

"I guess I want to be remembered as someone who played the game with a lot of dignity and respect," he said. "And a lot of respect for the history of the game and the players who came before me. I tried to play the game the way it was supposed to be played, to the best of my ability. But for the most part, I have given it everything I've had. I am very grateful that I've been able to play this game."

Gary Washburn is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.