Forgiveness is in air at yard as team's fallen hero signs in

IT WAS big, almost as big as the girl waving it over her head. It was bright orange with black lettering, and it read, "Welcome Back Raffy."

It was held aloft behind the Orioles' dugout about two hours before the first pitch at Camden Yards last night, and it was the first sign, no pun intended, that things were back to normal. Rafael Palmeiro had returned, he had finally spoken (but on the advice of my attorney, I can't tell you what he said), and he was embraced, at least by those who got to the ballpark early enough for batting practice.

Until he came on the field after the game, that was the only time Palmeiro was visible to the general public yesterday. When he was, two things happened: He was followed by cameras and the eyes of the playoff-level contingent of reporters, and fans climbed over each other to reach him and offer items to autograph.

Baseballs, programs, photos and tickets stubs passed across the dugout roof through dozens of hands and into Palmeiro's as he left the batting cage for the last time. Disposable cameras clicked and cell phone cameras flashed. He signed and posed for a good five minutes before heading down the dugout runway.

At least that bunch of fans didn't stay home, didn't boo and didn't turn its back. Palmeiro might have spent nearly all of his suspension in isolation, but yesterday, it was clear he wasn't alone. All told, 27,958 had a compelling enough reason to show up, even on a 92-degree night, against the Devil Rays, with the pennant race disappearing over the horizon and with their notorious hero coming back to the fold.

What the heck, it was a baseball game, not a statement of principle. These Orioles fans are either forgiving, forgetful, or plain fed up with these annoying intrusions on their fun. Boycott, schmoycott; we just wanna watch the game.

To his credit, Palmeiro said he appreciated it all. He said so when he first broke his silence before the game - speaking from the middle of a sweaty tangle of minicams and tape recorders in the home dugout - and again afterward in an impromptu chat in the clubhouse before leaving the park.

"These are great fans," he said in the afternoon. "I've always enjoyed playing here. They're the best fans in the game, and I hope they can understand my situation right now. I'll accept whatever they do."

After the game, he was just as charitable. It was almost as if he saw the light, the error of his ways, at some point during his long day at Camden Yards, and got a whack across the back of the head as a reminder during the game itself.

His sincerity level - unimpressive during the day, making him look and sound as if he were coming off injury rehab rather than a humiliating suspension - appeared higher at night's end.

Still, the interaction with fans before the game came off as authentic, and was definitely effective. He might be able to fake sincerity with the best of them (a point that a congressional committee is now investigating), but you won't be able to convince those pre-game fans that he's not for real.

Others, at the ballpark and purposely away from it, tell a different story. The fans carrying the derogatory signs obviously weren't buying what Palmeiro was selling. Neither were the callers filling the air on the sports-talk shows yesterday, insisting they were through with him and wishing he'd be released.

Neither were the e-mailers to this paper, who said a stand had to be taken against a player who, guilty or not, has shown them disrespect with his lengthy silence.

One e-mailer sent along an edited version of the ubiquitous "Believe" sign - with the first two letters and last two letters crossed out. Think about it.

And don't be so sure the boycott idea didn't resonate at all. On Wednesday, one sports-bar manager near the ballpark indicated this indignity was the last straw for the faithful.

"People were coming in here [the day Palmeiro was suspended] straight from the ballpark after they'd lost to the White Sox and had that unbelievable losing streak going," said Christine Groller, manager of Max's on Pratt Street. "They were not happy. They were saying, 'You won't see us anymore. We're done.'

"And people aren't coming back," she added. "Now they're really upset because [Palmeiro's] not saying anything."

Groller will be happy to know that Palmeiro finally said something, and did something. Some good advice for him (although it's not from his attorney): To get back in everybody's good graces, not just the ones at batting practice, he's got to keep it up.

If he's lucky, he might one day get to everybody - the ones who need convincing as well as the ones who don't.

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