Given the responsibility of checking the Orioles' lineup card yesterday, third base coach Rick Dempsey held it against the magnetic board outside the clubhouse, making sure all the names and positions matched up. Rafael Palmeiro, in the sixth slot, was listed as the designated hitter. No mistake there.
The wait was finally over.
Playing for the first time since being handed a 10-day suspension for violating baseball's steroid policy, Palmeiro received a mixed greeting from fans in the Orioles' 7-6 loss to the Toronto Blue Jays before 30,954 at Camden Yards. People stood to cheer, others were seated and booed. The response was neither brutal nor warming.
"It's kind of like Opening Day," he said. "You're anxious to get out there and get it going again. I was a little nervous."
Palmeiro gained everyone's support in the ninth, as he batted with two outs, two runners on base and a chance to win the game. The remaining crowd chanted his name before he flied to right, making him 0-for-4 with a walk and sealing the Orioles' 20th loss in their past 28 games.
"It would have been a good opportunity for me to at least get a hit and tie the game," he said.
Palmeiro flung the bat and lowered his head as the ball settled into Alex Rios' glove. He slapped his hands together and walked slowly to the dugout, turning once toward right as if making sure the inning really had ended.
So had the drama over his return.
"I'm sure it's a relief to get it out of the way," manager Sam Perlozzo said. "He's probably gone in there, taken a deep breath and gone, 'Whew, I'm glad that's over with. Now I can go ahead and play real baseball.' "
Palmeiro's wife, Lynne, and sons Patrick and Preston sat quietly behind home plate as the crowd's reaction unfolded around them.
"They've always been there with me through my whole career," he said. "I'm very thankful my wife can be here with my kids and support me."
They barely heard Palmeiro's name over the public-address system in the first inning because fans still were cheering Javy Lopez, whose run-scoring double gave the Orioles a 2-1 lead. The boos began to rain down on him, but they soon were muffled by an ovation that continued until he walked with the count full against Blue Jays starter Dustin McGowan.
"It was pretty mixed. I think the boos died out as the cheers stayed," Perlozzo said. "I thought it was exactly how it would be."
Palmeiro bounced into a double play in the third, the boos attached more to his failure than his suspension. He also grounded to first and second before flying out in his first game action since July 31.
"His timing was a little off his first at-bat, for sure," Perlozzo said, "but each time he got a little bit better."
Said Palmeiro: "In my whole career, I never sat out more than one or two games in a row. This is totally new to me. I'm sure as I get more playing time, I'll get more comfortable."
Perlozzo checked the lineup card in the ninth inning and noticed that Palmeiro was the seventh batter scheduled to hit. The Orioles would need a rally to give him one last chance.
"I was thinking positive," Perlozzo said. "I said, 'It's going to come to this and I'd love to see him get a knock.' And he took a good swing at it. He just got under it a little bit.
"I felt like we were going to win it. I really did."
The Orioles already scored twice against Blue Jays closer Miguel Batista on Melvin Mora's grounder and Javy Lopez's infield hit. Toronto had broken a 4-4 tie in the eighth with three straight two-out hits off Todd Williams after he replaced Tim Byrdak (0-1), who allowed a leadoff single to Russ Adams and took the loss.
Reed Johnson sent a liner to right field, and the ball deflected off Sammy Sosa's glove as he made a diving attempt. Orlando Hudson and Vernon Wells singled to right, and the Orioles were about to go 57-60 for the fourth straight year.
"Any time you dive straight out for a ball, it's a tough play," Perlozzo said of Sosa's attempt. "It was probably catchable, but it's a tough play."
Sosa made a strong throw home on Hudson's single. Lopez missed the tag, but replays showed that Johnson never touched the plate. Umpire Jeff Kellogg still ruled him safe.
"If he doesn't call that, then Javy can go back and look for a tag and we can get him there," Perlozzo said.
Erik Bedard struggled through five innings, allowing three runs and seven hits, and throwing 99 pitches, including 33 in the first. But no matter how he fared, most observers were going to focus on Palmeiro.
"Obviously there was a mixed review, but people need to take a look at themselves first," Wells said. "Nobody's perfect. Everybody makes mistakes. Don't be so quick to judge."
"He's a first-class guy," Hudson said, "and he's a first-ballot Hall of Famer in my book."
"He's a superhero," Mora said. "It doesn't matter what people think."
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