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Wasted words hang over return and leave little worth hearing

Peter Schmuck
Contact ReporterThe Schmuck Stops Here

HE COULD have had us at "Hello" ... but that was 10 days ago.

Rafael Palmeiro could have stood up on the day he was suspended and made a clean breast of it - either that or delivered some kind of explanation that passed the smell test and put to rest some of the nagging questions that continue to cast a cloud over his great career.

If he had done so, instead of hiding behind that bogus confidentiality pledge that blew up in his face the next day, a huge mass of national media might not have been pressed around him yesterday straining to hear the few noncommittal words he delivered upon his return to the Orioles' active roster.

It would not have been over, but Palmeiro would be much closer to the day when he could set about the daunting task of rebuilding his reputation. His return still would have made headlines, but the drama would have dissipated to the point where he might have been able to slip back into the Orioles' lineup with relatively little fanfare one way or the other.

Who knows, if he had come off as a stand-up guy, he might have gotten a standing "O."

Instead, he continues to bleed. He faced the cameras yesterday but not the music, which will stop only after he admits that he did wrong or comes up with an alibi so compelling that it overrides all of the skepticism that he and agent Arn Tellem have accumulated since the beginning of this sorry episode.

Maybe that's still possible, though believing that Palmeiro is completely innocent at this point requires a leap of faith so great that it would qualify you for the finals in several events at the X Games.

He wants you to accept that there is more to the story and that it will come to light as soon as Congress completes its perjury investigation, but it seems just as likely that he and his handlers are buying time and hoping that there is enough reasonable doubt still available at that point to make a last-ditch play for some small measure of exoneration.

It might have gone down that way already if the House Committee on Government Reform were not in the picture. Palmeiro hinted in his Aug. 1 conference call that he had taken the offending substance unwittingly, only to have his story unravel a bit when somebody leaked the identity of the steroid (stanozolol), which - by most accounts - could not have been ingested accidentally.

Without those pesky Congressmen poking around, Palmeiro could simply have insisted that the leak was false and that the substance that showed up in his system was something that has been linked to supplement contamination.

And, guess what, there would have been nothing that Major League Baseball officials could do about it because they - unlike Palmeiro - really are bound by a confidentiality clause in the current steroid-testing agreement. It would have come down to who you wanted to believe, which probably would have been good enough to salvage Palmeiro's Hall of Fame credentials.

Now, it comes down to what happens in the halls of Congress, which could cut both ways for Palmeiro. Obviously, if the drug-testing information requested by the committee shows that this was not his first positive steroid test, he will be in deep, deep trouble. If there is no further incriminating evidence, however, it seems likely that Rep. Tom Davis and Co. will put the focus of the steroid inquiry back on baseball's much-maligned five-strikes-and-you're-out testing program.

In the meantime, all we're left with are the cries and whispers that come with a scandal that refuses to die.

The fans remain divided. There was a sign in the stands yesterday welcoming Palmeiro back from his suspension. There also was one that chastised him for not telling the whole truth. We didn't get a chance to see which opinion would carry the night because Raffy did not appear in the 4-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Devil Rays or poke his head out of the dugout during the game.

There has been some sentiment that the Orioles should just give him the rest of his salary and send him home, but that isn't an option. He has paid the penalty prescribed for a first steroid offense in baseball's collective bargaining agreement. Releasing him would constitute a second level of punishment that would be overturned by an arbitrator faster than you can say Tony Phillips.

(When Phillips was caught in a drug sting some years ago, the Angels and the Walt Disney Co. tried to get rid of him by ordering him into drug rehab. Even though they were willing to pay the remainder of his salary, the players union and MLB filed a joint grievance charging that the Angels had superceded baseball's drug policy and an arbitrator forced the team to put him back on the active roster.)

Palmeiro isn't going anywhere. He wants to finish the season and maybe play one more year and insert as much baseball as possible in between his darkest day and an uncertain future, but those nagging questions will not go away.

He could have done something about that 10 days ago. Now it may be too late.

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