When Rafael Palmeiro strode to the plate yesterday for his first plate appearance since he was suspended for a positive steroid test, the boos showered down on him like rain. Then, just when you thought that there would be no ambivalence from the sweat-soaked crowd at Camden Yards, a cheer rose up to drown out the righteous multitude.
First boos. Then cheers.
Raffy, I think this is the beginning of a great love-hate relationship.
No one should be surprised. The reaction in Baltimore has been mixed from the moment news broke of Palmeiro's positive test and 10-day suspension. Some fans wanted to believe his contention that he did not ingest any illegal substance intentionally and some wanted to crucify him. Some fans have grown weary of the lingering controversy. Others are just as angry as they were two weeks ago - which was apparent by their behavior on what was supposed to be the day of the Rafael Palmeiro 3,000-hit celebration.
It was a strange scene that got stranger when a surprisingly large number of fans got up after the first inning and left the ballpark, apparently braving the 106-degree heat index just to register their disapproval at the first sight of their fallen hero.
They could have stayed home in protest, but I guess they didn't want to give David Steele the satisfaction, so they came, they booed and then they miraculously morphed into golf fans.
(Who could blame them? The PGA Championship at Stanozolol, er, Baltusrol - honest mistake - looked like it might come down to a dead heat.)
I'm guessing a lot of fans were just glad that Palmeiro got it over with. He sat out the first three games after returning from his suspension because he needed time to get back in baseball shape, but it still created a sort of Groundhog Day syndrome. Every day, he would come to the ballpark and do the same thing, and every day we waited for him to poke his head out of the dugout and signal six more weeks of rumors and speculation.
It has been 14 days and no one really knows any more than they did after Palmeiro held his conference call Aug. 1 and - on the advice of his attorneys - would say only that he did not take steroids intentionally and would not be able to prove it because of a confidentiality agreement that really didn't apply to him.
Palmeiro also held an impromptu media conference in the Orioles dugout when he rejoined the team Thursday but again steered around any specific explanation for the presence of the illegal steroid Stanozolol in his system after agent Arn Tellem announced the day before that his client would have no substantive comment until after the House Committee on Government Reform completes its perjury investigation.
No doubt, the response was muted by the heat wave that likely kept thousands of fans home, but enough of the announced crowd of 30,954 showed up to give a reasonable representation of the mixed emotions that have gripped this baseball town.
The Palmeiro supporters continue to hold out hope that there is some logical reason he has passed up several opportunities to demonstrate his innocence, though there really is nothing preventing him from clearing his name if he really is the victim of some terrible miscarriage of the steroid-testing program.
The indignant Palmeiro critics still want him to either come clean or go home, though he has every right under baseball's collective bargaining agreement to resume his career even if he has been using steroids since college.
There also are plenty of fans who just want this whole tawdry episode in Orioles history to be over, one way or the other. Count me among them.
When Palmeiro came up for his third plate appearance, the pro-Raffy fans were ready. They beat the anti-Raffy crowd to the punch with a positive ovation, but it would be followed by another hearty chorus of boos.
His fourth trip to the plate garnered a decidedly negative reaction, but the Orioles had just given up three runs in the top of the eighth inning and Palmeiro was still hitless. He got a better reaction when he came up with a chance to save the game in the bottom of the ninth, but he flied out to end the game and complete a hitless afternoon.
The day ended in a split decision, but - clearly - a lot of people still have a bad taste in their mouths.