Once Palmeiro was in the majors, he remained in the shadow of teammates: Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandberg in Chicago; Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez and Alex Rodriguez in Texas; and Cal Ripken and Miguel Tejada in Baltimore.

Critics of Palmeiro point out that he didn't dominate for a significant period (one top-five finish in Most Valuable Player voting); he made four All-Star teams and never was voted in as a starter by the fans, often losing out to Mark McGwire, Frank Thomas or Mo Vaughn.

Palmeiro never won a batting title (top three twice) or a home run crown (top three three times). He has never played in a World Series. He isn't a rah-rah player. And his profile isn't particularly high.

"I don't think too many people would recognize him as Raffy Palmeiro," Hendricks said. "In fact, he's probably better known for his Viagra commercial than he is as a player, and that's pitiful. It's pitiful for as much as he has done and he has achieved."

Yet those who've played with and against Palmeiro say he has made an undeniable mark on the game. Former Orioles teammate Mike Mussina said the lack of limelight doesn't lessen his "tremendous career." Houston Astros second baseman Craig Biggio calls him a "firstballot Hall of Famer, no doubt." And the New York Yankees' Jason Giambi said a generation of first basemen have patterned themselves after Palmeiro offensively and defensively.

"To me, that means more than any All-Star Game or any publicity along the way I may have gotten," Palmeiro said. "To me, when an opponent says, 'He's the player I kind of patterned myself after,' that is the ultimate compliment, above anything else."

Climbing the lists

"Reggie Jackson. Dude, you just tied Reggie Jackson!"

Palmeiro is pitching batting practice to son Patrick in late June when Jeff Brantley, an ESPN analyst and Palmeiro's former Mississippi State teammate, rushes over and gushes.

One by one, Palmeiro is catching legends on all-time lists, including Jackson, who was sitting alone in ninth place, with 563 home runs, before Palmeiro tied and passed him.

"I know, man," Palmeiro says sheepishly.

The embarrassment isn't staged. Palmeiro, inherently reserved, may be as surprised as anyone that he is now the fourth member of the historic 3,000-hit, 500-homer club.

"I never imagined that I could be in a category with Willie Mays and Hank Aaron and Eddie Murray," Palmeiro said. "Who would ever think that? Not me. But here I am knocking at the door."

Palmeiro has come a long way, Brantley said, since he was a sensitive freshman being ribbed for wearing "some kind of polyester leisure suit" on campus. But his attitude toward baseball hasn't changed in two decades.

"He's a guy that's grown up always having the idea that he has to prove himself," Brantley said. "I think that came from his dad's influence on him when he was younger."

Almost done

The end is nearing after 20 seasons.

"This could be my last year. It's been a long career," Palmeiro said. "I've got other things I have planned out for myself beyond baseball."

His family wants to take a non-baseball vacation, maybe to Italy to see amazing architecture and eat good food. He wants a more normal life.

But Brantley told Palmeiro that he owes it to himself, his family and the game to try for 600 homers. And Lynne Palmeiro said she'd discuss retirement more in-depth with her husband this offseason.

Palmeiro would like to play in a World Series, but individually his goals are met. No more proof is needed. Not to the media and not to his proud father.

Baseball, and life, have come full circle.

Patrick and Preston, 10, play organized baseball in suburban Dallas, where the Palmeiros make their offseason, in-school home. In the summers, the family joins Palmeiro in Baltimore and is a frequent presence at Camden Yards.

The boys watch their father closely. They are learning how to execute a perfect swing. They know that squeezing tennis balls will strengthen their wrists.

And, just like their father before them, they believe there is only one person who can teach them the sport properly -- as lovingly but maybe not as sternly -- as it was done 30 years ago in Miami.

"No matter how good their coach is," Lynne Palmeiro said, "of course, it is not as good as Dad."