An obscure legend becomes a highly publicized question mark.


The news last week that Baltimore Orioles star Rafael Palmeiro had been suspended for violating Major League Baseball’s steroid policy hit me hard. Really hard. Surprisingly hard, actually, considering steroids is hardly “news” in twenty-first century sports, and Palmeiro himself had been among the big-name players called before Congress to testify on the subject only last March. But Palmeiro’s riches-to-rags tale -- he had become the fourth player in the game’s history to hit 500 home runs and accumulate 3,000 hits only two weeks earlier -- reminded me just how far baseball has fallen, and that we may still not have reached the nadir.

Why the “shock” over Palmeiro’s outing? (He testified in Washington that he “never used steroids.” His comments last week introduced the qualifier “intentionally” to the statement.) At least in my eyes, Palmeiro had managed to avoid the Poster Boy Syndrome. When I considered the modern sports catastrophe that is steroid use in baseball, the players I pictured were Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, and the pathetic case that is Jason Giambi (he of the public apology, minus the act for which he was apologizing!). Like Palmeiro, Boston pitcher Curt Schilling testified last March, but I no more associate his name with “the cream” or “the clear” than I do Curt Flood’s. And it would appear the error, in this case, is mine.

Rafael Palmeiro personified for me the underappreciated modern baseball great, practicing his elegant swing in Texas and Baltimore, hidden in the shadows from the national media (seems ironic now, doesn’t it?). While his legacy will include the most ridiculous Gold Glove ever awarded (he was given the honor in 1999, having played 28 games at first base, 135 as a DH), Palmeiro represented profound career achievement without front-page headlines, nary a World Series appearance on his resume. When he picked up his 3,000th hit, joining Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Eddie Murray in the exclusive 500/3,000 club, he did so with a double, the most undervalued hit in the game (it can drive in a runner from all three bases, and leaves at least one runner in scoring position for the next batter). Having cut his teeth as a star at Mississippi State, Palmeiro seemed to represent hope in an era where bulging biceps and swollen heads (literally, I mean) had threatened the integrity -- and the history of our national pastime. For him to be outed merely days after his biggest previous headlines was cruel and unusual punishment for the baseball purist.

What next? It’s back to the drawing board for fans who felt like progress was being made, having seen Giambi and Sosa shrink to more normal human proportions, and Bonds wrestle with health issues as he weighs his return to the frying pan. With Palmeiro’s scarlet letter now stitched across the “O” on his uniform, who might be next? You really can’t name a player who shouldn’t be considered a threat. This may have been the case before last Monday’s announcement, but we needed the deflating reminder, it would appear. So hold your breath if you choose, turn away if you must.

As for Palmeiro’s punishment? The 10-day suspension is the least of his concerns. The signs that greet his return will be merciless (“Raffy on Roids”). There will be no Rafael Palmeiro Day when he hangs up his spikes. And as for the Hall of Fame, Palmeiro’s key to Cooperstown has been -- at least temporarily -- seized. By no means should he enter the Hall of Fame on his first ballot. That is the most exclusive of all clubs for baseball greatness, and it should be left for the unblemished legends: Aaron, Mays, Musial, Seaver, Schmidt, Ryan, etc. (The new bar for tarnished hitters will be presented in 2007, when McGwire first becomes eligible. The guess here is that he doesn’t get in, not for a few years.) Palmeiro violated a trust -- intentionally or otherwise -- with the fans who hold up his sport. The baseball writers who vote for the game’s ultimate honor need to hold him accountable.

As hurt as I felt upon reading of Palmeiro’s fall from grace, I find myself wanting to like the guy, wanting to empathize and maybe consider his transgression something that may have been an aberration . . . let the conspiracy theories begin. The sad part for Palmeiro -- and for any fan that still harbors some affection for him -- is that an asterisk is now as permanent a part of his image as that thick, black mustache.



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