Timing is everything. The great hitters have it. How else to send a 98-mph fastball into the stratosphere? The great performers depend on it. That's why they always seem to step into the spotlight.
Rafael Palmeiro wants this to be his time.
The Orioles head for Seattle tonight to prepare for the opening of the Division Series against the American League West champion Seattle Mariners. They could not have hoped to get there without the big-swinging first baseman who has led the club in RBIs the past four seasons, but Palmeiro never has gotten the national recognition that some of his contemporaries take for granted.
He has never been elected to an All-Star team, for instance, even though he drove in a club-record 142 runs last season and is about to complete his third straight season with at least 38 home runs. Frank Thomas and Mo Vaughn and the recently departed Mark McGwire have gotten most of the attention. Palmeiro has gotten used to being ignored.
So this October could be especially important to him, for that and a number of other reasons. This might be his best chance for a World Series ring. This might be an opportunity to cement his status as the Orioles' most successful free-agent acquisition. This might be an opportunity to shine in a postseason pantheon of superstars. Many of the game's biggest names have been invited, so this is an opportunity that might not come around again.
Timing indeed is everything, but Palmeiro knows that this is the perfect time not to change anything.
"I try not to approach it any differently than any game during the season," he said. "I know more people are going to be watching, but these are the same teams you've played in the regular season, so there's no reason to change anything. You just want to approach it in a relaxed manner.
"It is more intense, but as far as the approach, you try to approach it the same way -- relax, have fun and not worry about the results."
He will have more time to relax than he might have had in mind if manager Davey Johnson goes through with his plan to stack the lineup with right-handed batters for Game 1 against Randy Johnson, but Palmeiro is not making waves. He did not play in any of the three games that the Mariners' ace pitched against the Orioles in the regular season -- and the Orioles won all three -- so it's tough to make a strong case for changing now, but he still is holding out hope that he will see his name on the lineup card Wednesday.
Maybe it would be different if Palmeiro had hit for a more characteristic batting average this year, or already had built a reputation as a great postseason performer. But he is batting .254, well below his career average, he is 1-for-24 lifetime against Johnson and he is just starting to build a postseason track record.
Something to prove
Palmeiro's postseason experience is limited to the nine games that the Orioles played in the Division Series and American League Championship Series a year ago. He batted just .206 in those games, but had three home runs and six RBIs. He generally hits for a higher average, but he never stops producing runs. That much became apparent this season, when he never approached his .298 career average but still leads the club in home runs and RBIs -- albeit significantly fewer RBIs than the year before.
It would have been difficult to match his 1996 regular-season performance even under the best of circumstances. The makeup of the team had changed. Davey Johnson had taken away some of the emphasis on big offensive numbers by lobbying for the acquisition of defensive specialist Mike Bordick at the expense of big hitters Bobby Bonilla and Todd Zeile. And 142 RBIs is a tough act to follow.
Tougher still without outstanding No. 2 hitter Roberto Alomar, who spent a large part of the season on the sideline with a series of nagging injuries.
"I think so," Palmeiro agreed. "He creates a lot of offense for himself and everyone else around him. Last year, one of the reasons I drove in a lot of runs was because he set the table for me.
"I'm not taking anything away from the guys who played in his spot. He's just one of the great players in this game and it's hard to equal what he does."
Perhaps that explains why Palmeiro has come on so strong the past few weeks. He drove in four runs in the pennant clincher on Wednesday against the Toronto Blue Jays and -- since Alomar returned for good on Sept. 8 -- is batting .246 (16-for-65) with five homers and 14 RBIs in 20 games.
It may be a coincidence, but the day -- July 29 -- that Alomar suffered the severe groin strain that cost him nearly six weeks of the season, Palmeiro lapsed into a 2-for-37 slump. He also fell into a 10-day slump soon after Alomar reinjured his groin on Aug. 26.
Building toward playoffs
Now, with Alomar and injured veterans Eric Davis and Jerome Walton back in action, Palmeiro feels that the whole team is in a position to build to a big postseason crescendo, even though the Orioles played inconsistently during the weeks leading up to the division title celebration on Wednesday at SkyDome.
"I think it can," he said. "I know we've been struggling a little bit, but when the playoffs start, this is a veteran team that has been there before. You never know, but we have all the parts to win. We'll just have to wait and see what happens."
No doubt, Palmeiro would love to finish 1997 with a big flourish. He is on the threshold of the final year of the five-year contract he signed before the 1994 season, which means that his contract status probably will become an issue this off-season. He wants to return and should be in line for a rich, multi-year extension, depending on how the Orioles front office projects the infield alignment in 1999 and beyond.
Stay or go?
"I'd like to stay, but you really never know what they are thinking or what direction they are going," Palmeiro said. "We'll just have to wait and see what happens. I'm not going to force the issue."
The Orioles cannot have any regrets about the decision to sign Palmeiro four years ago. The case can be made that it was the best free-agent signing in franchise history. Palmeiro has been one of the five most productive offensive players of the decade and he has had four outstanding years in an Orioles uniform. Clubs have been shying away from five-year deals because so few free agents produce over the entire term, but Palmeiro figures to be the exception. He just turned 33, is in the prime of his career and is among the most durable players in the game.
"My feeling coming here was, I felt an obligation to live up to my end of the contract," Palmeiro said. "I told Peter [Angelos] that I wouldn't let him down. He made a commitment to me and I made a commitment to him.
"I work hard in the off-season to make sure I'm ready. I didn't want to be a guy who signs a contract and then gets criticized for not being ready to play. I feel that I have elevated my game since I signed that contract."
He'll get no argument from Davey Johnson or the Orioles' front office, but that doesn't guarantee that he'll be ushered back after the 1998 season. There has been speculation that the club will move Cal Ripken to first base for the final years of the contract extension he signed this spring, which -- if true -- would reduce the likelihood that the organization would commit millions to keep Palmeiro.
That's just another reason the timing is right for Palmeiro to step up on the postseason stage this year and show the baseball world what he can do.
"He played good last year [in the playoffs]," Davey Johnson said. "I think he's looking forward to it this year."
Palmeiro with O's
Year ... Avg. .... AB .... H ... HR ... RBI
1994 .. .319 .... 436 .. 139 ... 23 .... 76
1995 .. .310 .... 554 .. 172 ... 39 ... 104
1996 .. .289 .... 626 .. 181 ... 39 ... 142
1997 .. .254 .... 614 .. 156 ... 38 ... 110
1996 ... .176 ... 17 ... 3 ... 1 ... 2
AL Championship Series
1996 ... .235 ... 17 ... 4 ... 2 ... 4
Pub Date: 9/28/97