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Seattle a good second choice for a first


SEATTLE - On this night, with this chance at hand, his father and mother stayed home in Miami.

"They"ll watch it on TV. It's too far for them to fly." Rafael Palmeiro said last night before Aaron Sele took the mound for the Seattle Mariners and everyone who understands anything about baseball knew what this night was about.

If hit No. 3,000 for Palmeiro, the Cuban-born kid whose father and mother left behind the "regime' and settled in south Florida, was going to come in one of America's baseball outposts, it might as well be here.

Safeco Field was the place where another future Hall of Famer, Cal Ripken Jr., was named MVP of the 2001 All-Star Game after hitting a homer in dramatic fashion.

If it can't be at home, then here was a good alternative.

And "here' isn't just this Pacific Northwest jewel of a ballpark. It's also this country, where the best baseball players in the world come to play.

The foreign-born players escape either political regimes or poverty or they come in search of the best competition to see how they measure up, like Ichiro Suzuki.

This is how baseball found itself last night with a man named Rafael Palmeiro. His parents said "No' to Fidel Castro and 30 years later, the son was ready to reach one of baseball's greatest plateaus.

'I don't think I would have played baseball [had the family stayed in Cuba]." he said. "As far as what I understand, the only people who got to play baseball are those who are with the regime, the communist regime.

"And I know we left the country because my parents were against that. So I don't think I would have played baseball. I would have done something else."

It's a good thing, the way things worked out. Not only did Palmeiro belong in the big leagues of professional baseball, he ranks among the elite.

How many players have been good enough, long enough, to crank out 3,000 hits?

Not Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth or Ted Williams.

Maybe that explained the happy sense of anticipation for the Orioles at Safeco last night, at least until the second inning, when the team's night of potential celebration turned ugly, with pitcher Daniel Cabrera losing his control and the Mariners, in one quick attack, erased part of their first-half misery.

The underachieving Mariners picked an interesting night to perk up.

When Palmeiro grounded out to first in his first at-bat in the second inning, the Safeco crowd - willing to celebrate with him - exhaled.

Maybe this is the reason Palmeiro has been so matter-of-fact about becoming the 26th player to record 3,000 hits. It is inevitable now, but the main thing is getting the Orioles back in first place in the American League East, helping them win, pushing them toward a playoff berth.

In the midst of this quest, Palmeiro has been reluctant to step onto center stage.

So he has left the pomp and circumstance to others.

His sons, Patrick and Preston, hovered close last night, with Preston, the younger son, playing family cameraman. He's been filming dad since hit No. 2,990, but last night, the digital camera was chronicling Palmeiro all during batting practice.

This had all the potential of a nice and important night - and the stage was a good one. Bright lights, cool air blowing in off Elliott Bay.

"I played a lot of games here when I was with the Rangers." Palmeiro said about the Mariners team against which he had collected 224 of his 2,998 hits.

In the past, at least, Seattle has been good to Palmeiro. Maybe that's why the crew here was ready to oblige the future Hall of Famer.

In the visitors" clubhouse, longtime attendant Henry Genzale hung four extra No. 25 jerseys in Palmeiro's locker before the game.

"That way he can sign them and all five can be authenticated as the ones he wore during the game." Genzale said.

"Gaylord Perry had me hang nine the night he pitched his 300th win. He came in and changed after every inning. He wanted to go nine so every one of them could be authenticated."

There is money and fame in baseball records. We understand that. But the inevitability of hit No. 3,000 did not diminish the impressiveness of Palmeiro reaching this rare and lofty plateau.

Now, if a World Series ring could find its way to Palmeiro's hand ...

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Seattle Mariners

Site, time: Safeco Field, Seattle, 10:05

TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Rodrigo Lopez (8-5, 4.47) vs. Mariners' Joel Pineiro (3-4, 5.44)

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