Palmeiro, Sosa taking divergent paths to Hall


THE ORIOLES' LINEUP looks different these days. Rafael Palmeiro, his power stroke rediscovered, was penciled in at cleanup last night, before the rain and lightning made it a big night - for Camden Yards beer sales.

For the second night in a row, Sammy Sosa was penciled in at No. 6. The career cleanup hitter is no longer a viable cleanup hitter.

Why did it take so long to figure this out?

Demoting players is a delicate matter, not only because manager Lee Mazzilli worried about offending Sosa, but there's also the issue of Mazzilli not wanting to offend team leader Miguel Tejada, Sosa's friend, supporter and countryman.

If Sosa finds comfort and camaraderie in his new Baltimore home, it's as much because among his new teammates is a core group of Latin players, many of them fellow Dominicans, who revere Sosa.

Sosa was a hero, still is and always will be, at least to some fellow players, mostly because of what Sosa was, and what he will be: a Hall of Famer.

But this is no time for Sosa or the Orioles to dwell on this issue. Tejada is a big boy. He can handle the truth, even when his inclination is to protect and encourage his friend.

With nine homers, a .235 batting average and an apparent unwillingness to make the kind of adjustments to once again become a viable hitter, Sosa has become a serious liability, grounding into double plays and striking out far too often.

For a player who wanted a fresh start, a chance to prove himself again to be a front-line slugger, Sosa is crafting a dismal audition for his next contract. At this rate, it could be a one-year, $4 million deal with a team like the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Imagine that: Sosa a sideshow on a bad team for which career homer No. 600 would be used as attendance bait.

At this rate, with Sosa needing 17 homers to reach that milestone, it could be 2006 before he hits the mark.

Even for a circus-act star like Sosa, whose need for adoration helped create his phony persona, this is a pitiable way for a career to wind down. That's especially true here in Baltimore, where Sosa joined Palmeiro in a twin bill of Hall of Famers on the verge of momentous milestones.

Barring injury, one's definitely going to get his ... and it's not Sosa.

Palmeiro, 10 hits shy of 3,000 hits, is looking like he'll celebrate sometime before the All-Star break. Not bad for a guy who some said looked ready for retirement two months ago.

The pep talk Palmeiro needed to reorder his head and wake up his bat won't work on Sosa.

When Palmeiro was struggling at the start of this season, unable to beat the shift and his home run power downsized to warning track flares, he was clearly downhearted, especially when speculation arose that it might be August before he tagged career hit No. 3,000.

It was time to shake out the doubt, and the cobwebs.

Remember, you are Rafael Palmeiro. You are going to the Hall of Fame. Hit like it. Or at least go out trying.

Palmeiro, a quiet self-doubter, decided maybe it was time to seize the moment instead of slumping toward retirement.

"I became more aggressive and more relaxed," Palmeiro said last night.

Now, at the end of June, Palmeiro is a mere 10 hits shy of the plateau that will make his Cooperstown induction all the more significant. Palmeiro will be only the fourth player in history to have 500 homers and 3,000 hits, joining Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and another former Orioles first baseman, Eddie Murray.

It is fine company. And as much as statistics are secondary to a pennant race, there's no question that the plight of the Orioles' future Hall of Famers is inherently wrapped up into the team's chances for making the playoffs. If or until the Orioles trade for a player to replace Sosa or Palmeiro, the team needs these guys.

Palmeiro was most disappointed earlier in the season when he felt he wasn't contributing to the team. Now he is.

Sosa needs to do exactly the opposite of what Palmeiro did to regain his groove - or re-create himself in any viable fashion.

Sosa needs to stop thinking about being a Hall of Famer. He needs to stop thinking he will hit home runs and reclaim glory.

He needs to stop being so aggressive, swinging at high fastballs that opposing pitchers work up the ladder, allowing Sosa to swing, swing, swing.

It was one thing to lament the fact that the Orioles' only "big" deal this offseason was a Cubs salary dump, with the Chicago team paying $16 million of Sosa's heavy freight.

Sosa was damaged goods, or faltering goods. It was billed as a no-risk move, but right now, the way he's snuffing rallies and ending innings, Sosa is worse than benign. He's having an impact, and it's not good.

It would be sadistic for anyone to say they're happy to see a ballplayer like this struggling so much.

Likewise, it's foolish now to think that Sosa in any way, shape or form - and we do mean shape and form - resembles the pumped-up slugger who belted his way to stardom and Hall of Fame credentials.

Palmeiro regained his confidence by becoming aggressive, yet relaxed.

Sosa, in a new league, with diminished power, needs someone to give him some good advice, too.

More important, and less likely, Sosa needs to listen.

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