In Case You Missed It: NBA in Baltimore
SportsOrioles

Hit man

BaseballHomesFamilyFootballColleges and Universities

The shaggy-haired teen lines a pitchinto the outfield, and the ping from hisaluminum bat echoes throughout anempty Camden Yards.

The slightly graying, 40-year-old manon the pitcher's mound offers encouragementand throws again, prompting anotherunnatural baseball sound from15-year-old Patrick Palmeiro's bat.

Recently, it has been that older man,Rafael Palmeiro, whose bat has beenmaking the noise. He's the one whojoined an elite baseball fraternity Fridaynight at Seattle's Safeco Field with a doublein the fifth inning with one outagainst the Mariners to record his3,000th career hit.

Palmeiro is best suited in a batter'sbox, exhibiting the butter-smooth lefthandedswing that has helped him becomethe fourth player in Major Leaguehistory to collect 3,000 hits and morethan 500 homers, joining Hank Aaron,Willie Mays and Eddie Murray.

Yet standing on a mound tossing battingpractice to his two sons is where hetruly belongs, where he is most comfortable,where he will be for years to come.Out of the public eye with a baseball inhis hand. Teaching the sport to his children.Admonishing them for bad habits.Pushing them toward excellence.

And, with each instruction, payinghomage to his own father, the no-nonsenseCuban refugee who made the Oriolesfirst baseman what he is today.

To understand Palmeiro, to comprehendwhere this road to baseball immortalitybegan, it's best to know what happenedwhen he was 6.

Unfortunately, he can't guideyou step by step through thosedays; they were too long ago.The person who can is off-limits.

It's one of the few requests thesoft-spoken Palmeiro makes ofthe media: Don't bother his father,Jose, 76, who lives in an upscalehome in Miami that his famousson purchased for him.There have been past interviews,and Palmeiro wasn'thappy with the results. Besides,Palmeiro knows what his dadwill say: "He'll be like, 'That ishis deal. He's the one doing it. Idon't want any part of ' " theglory.

So, the ballplayer's interpretationwill have to do.

Jose Palmeiro, an ice-creamstandowner in Cuba, disagreedwith the communist policies ofFidel Castro. In 1971, with governmentpermission, Jose Palmeirotook his wife and three ofhis sons, ages 7, 6 and 3, and leftHavana for Florida.

That one act defined a family.And made an indelible impressionon a boy.

"It takes a lot of courage, Ithink, to leave your country,"Palmeiro said. "To leave everythingyou worked for, all yourmoney, all your possessions, allyour clothes, everything behind.And going to a foreign countrywith three little kids, without ajob, without money, withoutknowing anyone. I think thattakes a lot of courage."

The Palmeiro family settled inMiami and the father took aconstruction job, working hoursupon back-breaking hours forsurvival.

The boys had little -- except amother who smothered themwith love, a baseball diamondwithin walking distance and adad who burned to teach America'spastime.

"He'd come home at 4:30 everyafternoon from being out in thesun working in construction,and he'd come in, drink a glassof water, eat a sandwich andwe'd go to the ballpark," Palmeirosaid. "That takes a lot ofdedication and love for yourkids."

This is how Palmeiro's storygrew, from roots of poverty andstruggle into hope.

Watching the Orioles

As a kid, Palmeiro and hisbrothers would watch Murray,Ken Singleton and other Oriolestake batting practice beforespring training games at MiamiStadium. They'd wait for homerun balls to leave the park, thenthey'd chase them down and usethe balls for their own games.

"A lot of the other kids wouldget balls and sell them for 50cents or a dollar when the fanswere coming into the games,"Palmeiro said. "But I never solda baseball. I never took one either;the only ones I took werethe ones that came over thefence."

That's Palmeiro's story anyway.

"He was one of those kids whoused to jump over the fence andsteal a baseball and throw it tohis brother and jump back overthe fence," Orioles bullpen coachElrod Hendricks said with alaugh. "I told him he should bethe world's greatest hitter for asmany baseballs as he stole."

Even when he wasn't playing,Palmeiro was working towardbaseball goals. He developed hisquick wrists by squeezing tennisballs while watching television.And all of the Palmeiro boysswung bats daily to keep sharp.

This wasn't just pressure fromthe family patriarch. This iswhat was inside Palmeiro, saidhis wife of nearly 20 years,Lynne.

"I think some of it comes fromwhat his dad instilled in him,but I also think that is just hispersonality makeup," Lynne Palmeirosaid. "Even thoughRafael's dad pushed him and expectedand demanded a lot, Ithink with Rafael, that's also hisnature. He expects a lot of himself."

On to college

Ron Polk influenced Palmeiro'scareer. But the legendaryMississippi State baseball coachacknowledged that he had littleto do with the sweet Palmeiroswing.

"His dad and mom are greatpeople, and his dad is the reasonfor that great swing," Polksaid. "He'd work him night andday. His dad was tough on him.He could be a bear."

Polk said he wasn't sure hewas going to land the Miamischoolboy star in 1982. He hadthe feeling Palmeiro wanted toget out of Miami. But he alsosensed the shy kid was scared tobe too far from home.

The University of Miami, however,wanted Palmeiro to sit outa season and use the year of eligibilitylater, whereas Polk gavePalmeiro the chance to start inleft field as a freshman. Andwhen Palmeiro took his recruitingtrip to Starkville, Miss.,he watched the Bulldogs playtheir rival, Mississippi.

"I was like, 'I want to be a partof this. I don't want to miss outon this,' " Palmeiro said. "It is anevent. It is almost like a footballweekend."

Palmeiro spent three years atMississippi State, earning All-America honors each season beforebeing drafted as a junior inthe first round by the ChicagoCubs.

College was where he met hiswife, a native Mississippian. It'swhere he started dealing withthe media and the public's elevatedexpectations. It's wherehis pro baseball aspirationsleapt toward reality.

Originally, though, Palmeirohad a backup plan. He loveddrawing and was fascinated byarchitecture. He considered becomingan architect before aninitial meeting with the college'sarchitecture department head.He was told he'd have to give upbaseball in the summers to concentrateon internships.

"We walked out of there, and Isaid, 'I guess you're not going tobe an architect, Raf,' " Polk said.

Instead, Palmeiro became anart major -- and one of theschool's best players ever.

In the shadows

Palmeiro excelled at MississippiState, yet by the end of hisjunior year he had been edgedout of the spotlight by his teammate-turned-rival Will Clark.

Before they battled for free agentfunds in the majors, theywere called Thunder and Lightning.Thunder struck first in thepros. Clark, picked second overallin the 1985 amateur draft bythe San Francisco Giants, madehis debut the next April, andPalmeiro was selected 22ndoverall in the same draft and debutedin September 1986.

Once Palmeiro was in the majors,he remained in the shadowof teammates: Andre Dawsonand Ryne Sandberg in Chicago;Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalezand Alex Rodriguez in Texas;and Cal Ripken and Miguel Tejadain Baltimore.

Critics of Palmeiro point outthat he didn't dominate for asignificant period (one top-fivefinish in Most Valuable Playervoting); he made four All-Starteams and never was voted in asa starter by the fans, often losingout to Mark McGwire, FrankThomas or Mo Vaughn.

Palmeiro never won a battingtitle (top three twice) or a homerun crown (top three threetimes). He has never played in aWorld Series. He isn't a rah-rahplayer. And his profile isn't particularlyhigh.

"I don't think too many peoplewould recognize him asRaffy Palmeiro," Hendricks said."In fact, he's probably betterknown for his Viagra commercialthan he is as a player, andthat's pitiful. It's pitiful for asmuch as he has done and he hasachieved."

Yet those who've played withand against Palmeiro say he hasmade an undeniable mark onthe game. Former Orioles teammateMike Mussina said thelack of limelight doesn't lessenhis "tremendous career." HoustonAstros second basemanCraig Biggio calls him a "firstballotHall of Famer, no doubt."And the New York Yankees' JasonGiambi said a generation offirst basemen have patternedthemselves after Palmeiro offensivelyand defensively.

"To me, that means morethan any All-Star Game or anypublicity along the way I mayhave gotten," Palmeiro said. "Tome, when an opponent says,'He's the player I kind of patternedmyself after,' that is theultimate compliment, aboveanything else."

Climbing the lists

"Reggie Jackson. Dude, youjust tied Reggie Jackson!"

Palmeiro is pitching battingpractice to son Patrick in lateJune when Jeff Brantley, anESPN analyst and Palmeiro'sformer Mississippi State teammate,rushes over and gushes.

One by one, Palmeiro is catchinglegends on all-time lists, includingJackson, who was sittingalone in ninth place, with 563home runs, before Palmeiro tiedand passed him.

"I know, man," Palmeiro sayssheepishly.

The embarrassment isn'tstaged. Palmeiro, inherently reserved,may be as surprised asanyone that he is now the fourthmember of the historic 3,000-hit,500-homer club.

"I never imagined that I couldbe in a category with Willie Maysand Hank Aaron and EddieMurray," Palmeiro said. "Whowould ever think that? Not me.But here I am knocking at thedoor."

Palmeiro has come a long way,Brantley said, since he was asensitive freshman being ribbedfor wearing "some kind of polyesterleisure suit" on campus.But his attitude toward baseballhasn't changed in two decades.

"He's a guy that's grown up alwayshaving the idea that he hasto prove himself," Brantley said."I think that came from hisdad's influence on him when hewas younger."

Almost done

The end is nearing after 20seasons.

"This could be my last year.It's been a long career," Palmeirosaid. "I've got other things Ihave planned out for myself beyondbaseball."

His family wants to take anon-baseball vacation, maybe toItaly to see amazing architectureand eat good food. Hewants a more normal life.

But Brantley told Palmeirothat he owes it to himself, hisfamily and the game to try for600 homers. And Lynne Palmeirosaid she'd discuss retirementmore in-depth with herhusband this offseason.

Palmeiro would like to play ina World Series, but individuallyhis goals are met. No more proofis needed. Not to the media andnot to his proud father.

Baseball, and life, have comefull circle.

Patrick and Preston, 10, playorganized baseball in suburbanDallas, where the Palmeirosmake their offseason, in-schoolhome. In the summers, the familyjoins Palmeiro in Baltimoreand is a frequent presence atCamden Yards.

The boys watch their fatherclosely. They are learning how toexecute a perfect swing. Theyknow that squeezing tennisballs will strengthen theirwrists.

And, just like their father beforethem, they believe there isonly one person who can teachthem the sport properly -- aslovingly but maybe not assternly -- as it was done 30 yearsago in Miami.

"No matter how good theircoach is," Lynne Palmeiro said,"of course, it is not as good asDad."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
Related Content
BaseballHomesFamilyFootballColleges and Universities
Comments
Loading