The shaggy-haired teen lines a pitch into the outfield, and the ping from his aluminum bat echoes throughout an empty Camden Yards.
The slightly graying, 40-year-old man
on the pitcher's mound offers encouragement
and throws again, prompting another
unnatural baseball sound from
15-year-old Patrick Palmeiro's bat.
Rafael Palmeiro, whose bat has been
making the noise. He's the one who
joined an elite baseball fraternity Friday
night at Seattle's Safeco Field with a double
in the fifth inning with one out
against the Mariners to record his
3,000th career hit.
Palmeiro is best suited in a batter's
box, exhibiting the butter-smooth lefthanded
swing that has helped him become
the fourth player in Major League
history to collect 3,000 hits and more
than 500 homers, joining Hank Aaron,
Willie Mays and Eddie Murray.
Yet standing on a mound tossing batting
practice to his two sons is where he
truly belongs, where he is most comfortable,
where he will be for years to come.
Out of the public eye with a baseball in
his hand. Teaching the sport to his children.
Admonishing them for bad habits.
Pushing them toward excellence.
And, with each instruction, paying
homage to his own father, the no-nonsense
Cuban refugee who made the Orioles
first baseman what he is today.
To understand Palmeiro, to comprehend
where this road to baseball immortality
began, it's best to know what happened
when he was 6.
Unfortunately, he can't guide
you step by step through those
days; they were too long ago.
The person who can is off-limits.
It's one of the few requests the
soft-spoken Palmeiro makes of
the media: Don't bother his father,
Jose, 76, who lives in an upscale
home in Miami that his famous
son purchased for him.
There have been past interviews,
and Palmeiro wasn't
happy with the results. Besides,
Palmeiro knows what his dad
will say: "He'll be like, 'That is
his deal. He's the one doing it. I
don't want any part of ' " the
So, the ballplayer's interpretation
will have to do.
Jose Palmeiro, an ice-creamstand
owner in Cuba, disagreed
with the communist policies of
Fidel Castro. In 1971, with government
permission, Jose Palmeiro
took his wife and three of
his sons, ages 7, 6 and 3, and left
Havana for Florida.
That one act defined a family.
And made an indelible impression
on a boy.
"It takes a lot of courage, I
think, to leave your country,"
Palmeiro said. "To leave everything
you worked for, all your
money, all your possessions, all
your clothes, everything behind.
And going to a foreign country
with three little kids, without a
job, without money, without
knowing anyone. I think that
takes a lot of courage."
The Palmeiro family settled in
Miami and the father took a
construction job, working hours
upon back-breaking hours for
The boys had little -- except a
mother who smothered them
with love, a baseball diamond
within walking distance and a
dad who burned to teach America's
"He'd come home at 4:30 every
afternoon from being out in the
sun working in construction,
and he'd come in, drink a glass
of water, eat a sandwich and
we'd go to the ballpark," Palmeiro
said. "That takes a lot of
dedication and love for your
This is how Palmeiro's story
grew, from roots of poverty and
struggle into hope.
Watching the Orioles
As a kid, Palmeiro and his
brothers would watch Murray,
Ken Singleton and other Orioles
take batting practice before
spring training games at Miami
Stadium. They'd wait for home
run balls to leave the park, then
they'd chase them down and use
the balls for their own games.
"A lot of the other kids would
get balls and sell them for 50
cents or a dollar when the fans
were coming into the games,"
Palmeiro said. "But I never sold
a baseball. I never took one either;
the only ones I took were
the ones that came over the
That's Palmeiro's story anyway.
"He was one of those kids who
used to jump over the fence and
steal a baseball and throw it to
his brother and jump back over
the fence," Orioles bullpen coach
Elrod Hendricks said with a
laugh. "I told him he should be
the world's greatest hitter for as
many baseballs as he stole."
Even when he wasn't playing,
Palmeiro was working toward
baseball goals. He developed his
quick wrists by squeezing tennis
balls while watching television.
And all of the Palmeiro boys
swung bats daily to keep sharp.
This wasn't just pressure from
the family patriarch. This is
what was inside Palmeiro, said
his wife of nearly 20 years,
"I think some of it comes from
what his dad instilled in him,
but I also think that is just his
personality makeup," Lynne Palmeiro
said. "Even though
Rafael's dad pushed him and expected
and demanded a lot, I
think with Rafael, that's also his
nature. He expects a lot of himself."
On to college
Ron Polk influenced Palmeiro's
career. But the legendary
Mississippi State baseball coach
acknowledged that he had little
to do with the sweet Palmeiro
"His dad and mom are great
people, and his dad is the reason
for that great swing," Polk
said. "He'd work him night and
day. His dad was tough on him.
He could be a bear."
Polk said he wasn't sure he
was going to land the Miami
schoolboy star in 1982. He had
the feeling Palmeiro wanted to
get out of Miami. But he also
sensed the shy kid was scared to
be too far from home.
The University of Miami, however,
wanted Palmeiro to sit out
a season and use the year of eligibility
later, whereas Polk gave
Palmeiro the chance to start in
left field as a freshman. And
when Palmeiro took his recruiting
trip to Starkville, Miss.,
he watched the Bulldogs play
their rival, Mississippi.
"I was like, 'I want to be a part
of this. I don't want to miss out
on this,' " Palmeiro said. "It is an
event. It is almost like a football
Palmeiro spent three years at
Mississippi State, earning All-
America honors each season before
being drafted as a junior in
the first round by the Chicago
College was where he met his
wife, a native Mississippian. It's
where he started dealing with
the media and the public's elevated
expectations. It's where
his pro baseball aspirations
leapt toward reality.
Originally, though, Palmeiro
had a backup plan. He loved
drawing and was fascinated by
architecture. He considered becoming
an architect before an
initial meeting with the college's
architecture department head.
He was told he'd have to give up
baseball in the summers to concentrate
"We walked out of there, and I
said, 'I guess you're not going to
be an architect, Raf,' " Polk said.
Instead, Palmeiro became an
art major -- and one of the
school's best players ever.
In the shadows
Palmeiro excelled at Mississippi
State, yet by the end of his
junior year he had been edged
out of the spotlight by his teammate-
turned-rival Will Clark.
Before they battled for free agent
funds in the majors, they
were called Thunder and Lightning.
Thunder struck first in the
pros. Clark, picked second overall
in the 1985 amateur draft by
the San Francisco Giants, made
his debut the next April, and
Palmeiro was selected 22nd
overall in the same draft and debuted
in September 1986.
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
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,
"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
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
The end is nearing after 20
"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
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
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
The boys watch their father
closely. They are learning how to
execute a perfect swing. They
know that squeezing tennis
balls will strengthen their
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
From Sunday's Sun
A strong work ethic and a sweet swing -- both instilled by his father -- have helped Rafael Palmeiro join one of the most exclusive groups in baseball.
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