I want to believe Palmeiro

It’s all over the news. Rafael Palmeiro, the Baltimore Orioles star who just joined the elite 500 home run/3,000 hit club, tested positive for steroid use and has been suspended.

Palmeiro, of course, was outspoken on the issue when he testified before Congress earlier this year while Mark McGwire was being evasive.I remember when Palmeiro first came up with the Chicago Cubs. I was a Cubs fan back then, and since all Cubs games were televised, it was easy to follow them. I could watch their daytime games after I got home from school.

The Cubs brought him up prematurely, in 1986, because their team was ravaged by injuries. In those days he was an outfielder. He played left field, filling in for injured veterans, batted .247, and left Cubs fans wondering what the future might hold.

He came back in 1987. He only played about half the season. I can’t remember now if that was because the Cubs called him up at midseason, or if he was injured, or something else. But Palmeiro played 84 games that year, hitting 14 home runs in 221 at bats, and some of us thought we had a future power hitter on our hands.

He only hit 8 home runs in 1988, his first full season in the majors. People point back now to that as evidence that he was obviously juicing. Having seen him swat 14 in limited duty the year before, I always figured pitchers had adjusted to him. He hit .307, but he didn’t have much power. We figured the power would come.

Following the season, the Cubs made one of the worst trades of the 1980s, packaging Palmeiro and left-handed pitcher Jamie Moyer (still hurling for the Mariners today) in a deal with the Texas Rangers for notorious flameout closer Mitch Williams, Paul Hilgus (a pitcher whose career never got off the ground), and Curt Wilkerson (a career utility infielder).

The Rangers noted Palmeiro’s lackluster defense in the outfield and moved him to first base–the Cubs had experimented with him there, but really wanted to keep the position open for Mark Grace, who was just a year or so behind Palmeiro–and Palmeiro turned into a productive, sweet-swinging hitter for the Rangers. He hit 14 homers that year. The next year he hit 26, then 22. About the time Jose Canseco says Palmeiro started using steroids, he became good for 35-40 homers a year.

I always figured he had matured as a hitter. That’s what I always wanted to believe, and it’s still what I want to believe.

To me, Palmeiro became the one who got away. Even after I wasn’t a Cubs fan anymore, and even during that phase when I liked the Cubs less than the Mets, I guess Palmeiro’s success just proved to me that I was smarter than the Cubs’ front office. (So was my dog, but that’s beside the point.) I kept rooting for the guy.

I guess it helped that he was likeable. Besides being a steady ballplayer who was willing to do whatever he needed to do–eventually he honed his lackluster defense into something of Gold Glove caliber–he got involved in the community, and he was always willing to sign an autograph.

So when Jose Canseco first claimed Rafael Palmeiro injected steroids, I didn’t believe him. Drugs didn’t make him improve his defense, so in my mind, his home run surge must have been due to more work in the weight room and/or the batting cage. Besides, when you extrapolate 1987 over a full season, you get more than 35 home runs.

Canseco might as well have been claiming to have introduced steroids to Fred Rogers, as far as I was concerned.

But now, the test… Can a drug test lie?

So I don’t know what to think of Palmeiro now.

A lot are saying he won’t go to the Hall of Fame now. There’s no room in the Hall for cheaters, they say. Well, that’s not true. Gaylord Perry got to the Hall of Fame by throwing greaseballs. Don Sutton’s nickname was Black and Decker. Both are in the Hall of Fame. Neither would be if they’d followed the rules. And yes, Perry once got caught.

So we can forget about Palmeiro making it on the first ballot. That’s probably for the best. It took Ryne Sandberg three ballots to get in. Maybe Palmeiro will need five or six. I don’t think this will ultimately keep him out of there.

I’m not sure if that’s right or if it’s wrong.

I guess the steroids thing explains one thing about Palmeiro. At around age 36 or 37, Palmeiro started doing commercials for Viagra. I wondered why someone his age would have any need for the stuff. Well, maybe now we know.

Kids, keep that in mind before you shoot up.

2 thoughts on “I want to believe Palmeiro

  • August 2, 2005 at 10:04 pm
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    Baseball has a place for only the best. Players that make millions are forced to take steroids to keep those checks coming in. More and more players will take something for the edge.
    Kick a steroid user out on the first dirty test and you clean up baseball. That’s not going to happen. The unions and the owners make to much money to clean it up. The Fans go to the game for the home runs.

  • August 2, 2005 at 11:31 pm
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    Maybe Palmiero only took them before batting practice, like Sammy with the corked bat. Just joking, I know it’s not a short-term effect like that.

    Yes I’d like to believe in him too, but I don’t. He’d have to be incredibly stupid to not know what he’s taking and accidentally fail a test. Of course after wagging his finger at Congress and denying ever taking steroids he’d have to be stupid to take them on purpose, but he started the season and went a LONG time with only 1 home run. So maybe the pressure got to him and he looked for an edge.

    I suspect this is just the tip of the iceberg. Plus human growth hormone is NOT test for by baseball.

    I wonder about football, too, despite their drug testing policy that has been there a lot longer than baseball’s. I remember when 265 pounds was a fairly big lineman. Yes I know that guys lift weights a lot more and conditioning is year-round. But I’ve lifted for years and I know how hard it is to gain. Yes, some of these guys are naturals, but every lineman seemingly 330 pounds? Give me a break.

    I think that the performance enhancing drug problem in sports is a lot worse than we yet know.


    -Steve

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