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Palmeiro finds postseason fence toughest to clear


CLEVELAND -- Thirty-four homers. Rafael Palmeiro is one short of the Orioles' highest total since 1979, two short of their highest total since '69, six short of only the third 40-homer season in club history.

Forty is probably out of the question, but only because this is a 144-game season. When Palmeiro finally plays the full 162 for the Orioles, he might produce a season comparable to Frank Robinson's in 1966.

A Triple Crown? That might be out of Palmeiro's reach in this offensive era. But a world championship? Now, you're talking. The older Palmeiro gets -- he turns 31 on Sept. 24 -- the more he longs to play in the postseason.

"I was thinking about that at the [Cal Ripken] parade," Palmeiro said. "Here we were, eight games under .500, 19 games back, and here's this crowd, thousands of people.

"I know it was for Cal. But they were cheering the Orioles, too. Here we are, a bad team. We've let everyone down. And they were still out there. I've never been on a team that won a championship. But it has to be the greatest feeling in the world."

Palmeiro can only wonder. He spent one full season with the Chicago Cubs and five with Texas before joining the Orioles. His goal is to play into late October. He thought this would be the year.

By his own admission, he was more self-centered earlier in his career, when his future was uncertain. But the change in Palmeiro is noticeable, even from last season to this one. He's more team-conscious than before, more of a leader.

After one crushing loss this season, Palmeiro walked into the clubhouse and said, "I'm speechless." After another, he was still disgusted the next day. "Gross," he muttered, walking past a group of reporters.

"My future is secure," said Palmeiro, who signed a five-year, $30.35 million contract with the Orioles in December 1993. "It doesn't matter what I do; I'm going to get paid. My focus is not on myself. My focus is on the team."

To that end, he met recently with owner Peter Angelos. Palmeiro said the talk was "confidential," but apparently he liked what he heard. "We can win next year," he said. "We just need to add the right pieces, and we'll be fine."

Angelos, of course, isn't afraid to add pieces. In the course of a 20-minute conversation on Friday, Palmeiro mentioned Roberto Alomar, Dante Bichette and Sammy Sosa as potential free agents the Orioles could pursue.

Another hitter, and Palmeiro would become that much more dangerous. He'd be an MVP candidate if the Orioles were in contention. Since the All-Star break, he has batted .336 with 19 home runs.

He needs nine RBIs in his final 19 games to produce only the third 100-RBI season by an Oriole since 1985 (Mike Devereaux had 107 in 1992, Ripken 114 in '91).

He also could be the first Oriole in more than a decade to hit .300 in back-to-back seasons (Ripken did it in '83 and '84, Eddie Murray from '82 to '84).

Again, he's accomplishing all this in strike-shortened seasons. Maybe it was an accident, but Angelos clearly made the right call when he defied his front office and signed Palmeiro over Will Clark.

It was important to Palmeiro to prove the Rangers wrong and the Orioles right. The one advantage Clark was thought to offer was leadership. But he is despised by many teammates, and Palmeiro is universally respected.

"I feel at ease when I think about it, knowing I haven't let them down," Palmeiro said. "I don't know if everyone was on my side -- but the people who brought me here, I just feel good I didn't let them down or myself down."

Palmeiro is batting four points higher than Clark the past two seasons, with 31 more homers and eight more RBIs. The gap between them only figures to widen over the final three years of their contracts.

Palmeiro has missed only two games the past two seasons, Clark 34. In his first six years, Palmeiro averaged 157 games. He never has been on the disabled list, but Clark always seems to have nagging injuries, and has been on the DL twice.

"I know what I do in the off-season to prepare myself," Palmeiro said. "I feel I'm getting better as I get older. There's always room for improvement. One of my goals is to outdo myself from the year before."

Remember when the Cubs traded him to Texas because he didn't hit for power? Over the past five seasons, Palmeiro has hit 142 homers. Only three left-handed hitters -- Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey and Fred McGriff -- have hit more.

His 19 homers at home this season are a Camden Yards record. And it's not as if he's sacrificing average for power. Kirby Puckett and Paul Molitor are the only major-leaguers with more hits in the '90s.

Yet, few notice any of this. Palmeiro has performed in Ripken's shadow all season. And when people talk about the Orioles, they talk about the team's disappointing play and little else.

"I've been on some bad teams, where we really weren't expected to win," Palmeiro said. "This year, we came in thinking we had as good a chance as anyone.

"It's been so hard. We feel like we can win every time out. But we go out and don't get it done. We're 10 games under .500. With the team we have, being realistic, we should probably be 10 games over."

He's two behind Albert Belle in the race for the American League home-run title, tied for second with Frank Thomas and Mo Vaughn. But in this game, individual achievements go only so far.

Ask Palmeiro, ask anyone.

The only fulfillment is winning.

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