His family left Cuba when he was 6. The Palmeiros weren't exactly poor, but little Rafael and his friends would gather outside the Orioles' spring training stadium in Miami, trying to catch home run balls. "Those were the baseballs we practiced with," Rafael recalls.
Palmeiro's father, Jose Sr., ran an ice cream stand in Cuba, then worked construction in the United States. "We had everything we needed," Palmeiro says. Still, when it came time for him to attend Mississippi State, he qualified for federal grants on top of his baseball scholarship.
Now, a decade later, Palmeiro is guaranteed $30.35 million in his new, five-year contract with the Orioles. It should be his merriest Christmas, yet Palmeiro still is struggling to accept that he no longer will be playing for the Texas Rangers.
"It's happy, in a sense, that we've got it [the contract] out of the way," Palmeiro says. "But it's been hard. We didn't want to change. We were happy with our situation. We didn't want to go anywhere."
Palmeiro, 29, planned to remain in Texas with his wife, Lynne, and 3-year-old son, Patrick. He's building a new home in a Dallas suburb, and the sting of the Rangers' snub remains fresh, even as he celebrates his new contract and the holiday season.
The feeling will pass, probably the moment Palmeiro puts on his Orioles jersey. To remind himself of his good fortune, he need only consider what might have been. One of his brothers, Jose, still lives in Cuba, a country devastated by fuel and food shortages brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Jose, 40, was nearing mandatory military service when the family left in 1971, and had to stay in Cuba. Palmeiro arrived in Miami with his parents and two other brothers. "I didn't know what was going on," Palmeiro says. "We just got on a plane and landed 45 minutes later."
That was the start of his improbable journey to stardom. %J Palmeiro grew up a 10-minute walk from Bobby Maduro Stadium, the Orioles' former spring training home. "I used to love the Orioles back then," he says -- the Orioles of the late '70s, Scott McGregor, Rick Dempsey, Mark Belanger.
Palmeiro and his friends would gather in the parking lot behind the left-field wall. During batting practice, they'd scramble for as many home run balls as they could gather. Occasionally, they'd enter the stadium after the fifth inning, when they no longer had to pay.
Even then, Palmeiro dreamed of becoming a major-leaguer, but he had limited contact with the Orioles. "We'd ask them for baseballs, and they hardly ever threw them out," he says. "That's not like me. Every time someone asks me for a ball, I throw one out. I just know the feeling. The feeling of rejection."
Still, Palmeiro collected enough balls to develop his swing, and he became a high school star in Miami at the same time as another native Cuban, Jose Canseco. Another major-leaguer with Cuban roots, Danny Tartabull, also grew up in Miami, but was 2 years older.
The New York Mets drafted Palmeiro out of high school, but Mississippi State coach Ron Polk went to Miami to get his man. "It was one of the poorer parts of the town," Polk says. "His mom was a seamstress. His dad was a laborer. Neither spoke any English -- 'Ralph' interpreted everything."
Palmeiro became a three-time All-American at Mississippi State -- he played left field; Will Clark played first base. Major-league stardom followed, and through the help of This Week in Baseball, he reunited with his brother, Jose, after 21 years in April 1992.
The two played catch at Yankee Stadium in a real-life "Field of Dreams" sequence, and Jose stayed in the United States on a three-month visa before returning to Cuba to rejoin his pregnant wife and son. Another reunion won't be possible until Fidel Castro eases his restrictions on emigration.
While in New York, Jose was asked what would have happened to his younger brother if he had stayed in Cuba.
"First of all, I'd have to analyze," he said. "There's no way of telling whether the circumstances in Cuba would have allowed him to be a baseball player."
And if they hadn't?
"If there was no baseball, he might have studied," Jose continued. "Or he'd have been a manual laborer like everyone else."
As it turned out, Palmeiro became a manual laborer anyway, but only in the loosest definition of the term. He's a long way from the streets of Miami, and an even longer way from the streets of Havana, where he was born.
"It is amazing," Palmeiro says. "I never thought it would get to be this way. I thought I'd be playing in the big leagues, but not for this kind of money. It's pretty amazing how far I've come."