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Not one to take a leading role, Palmeiro is alone in spotlight


SEATTLE -- Before the game in which Rafael Palmeiro needed just one hit to reach his next, rare baseball milestone, he paced a little between the clubhouse and the batting cage.

Jim Palmer stopped by to talk, one Hall of Famer to a future Hall of Famer. Who better to reassure Palmeiro about how the main thing last night was to "get this thing over with"?

"I'm trying, but I'm being patient, waiting for a pitch to hit," he said.

Three thousand major league hits are a long time coming, so this historic moment was not exactly a news flash.

A bit of gallows humor was in order to cope with the anticipation surrounding it, especially after Thursday night's game, when Palmeiro was in the on-deck circle when Miguel Tejada made the final out for the Orioles.

Imagine that: Raffy with a chance to tag his momentous hit with the bases loaded in the ninth.

Didn't happen.

Instead, the wait was worth it.

Last night, Palmeiro did not merely get career hit No. 3,000, he punctuated the momentous moment by making it mean something to himself. The double he sliced to the opposite field scored Melvin Mora from second base, a fact that apparently pleased Palmeiro.

A milestone, sure.

An RBI? Now that made the attention and anticipation worth it.

Before the game, Palmeiro carried around his cell phone, in case someone called to wish him good luck. But it wasn't ringing, he pointed out with a bemused shrug. So instead, he opened the flip-top cover and glanced at the digital color image on the screen.

"This is my dog. This is Brody, a Mississippi State bulldog," Palmeiro said.

Now this made him smile, something unrelated to how many hits or homers he has.

"People don't know me that well. Away from the field, I'm different," he said.

But on the field, for as long as he's playing in the big leagues, he will stay the same, "until I'm cruising on a boat one day."

It would be nice to think that Palmeiro enjoyed his big moment, even if the perpetual look of intensity on his face, the reluctance to look up or smile, tends to suggest otherwise.

In his head, he explained last night, his mantra is always one thing:

"Don't take anything for granted. Don't take anything for granted."

It is the mantra of a middle-aged man who was once the young Cuban emigre and who can't ever forget how and why it is that he got here.

He was programmed to hit, to produce, to be perfect at the plate.

"My father pushed me," Palmeiro said.

It's been a blessing and a curse, because early on, Palmeiro internalized that mandate to push, push, push.

"Yes, it has been a blessing and a curse," Palmeiro said last night.

For him, 3,000 hits to go along with his 500-plus homers is not a milestone to celebrate as much as it is the natural consequence of a long career built upon producing, every time up at the plate.

"I drive myself because he pushed me," he said.

One day, when his career is done, Palmeiro said he won't do that anymore.

"Off the field, it's different. Here, this is the way I've done it. No one else is going to make you work, so you have to do it yourself," he said.

But it would be nice to think Palmeiro could recognize his latest big baseball moment the way baseball fans do.

For the second time in his long career, Palmeiro claimed the stage all for his own. The first time was when he hit his 500th major league home run, ensuring a trip to Cooperstown.

Funny, Palmeiro called that one of his 3,000 hits his most memorable, at least until this one.

What about hit No. 3,000?

At the very least, for only the second time in his elite career, Palmeiro stood alone. The way he pumped and slapped his hands when he chugged into second base indicated he was satisfied. The way he saluted the appreciative Safeco Field crowd did, too.

His Orioles teammates helped stretch Palmeiro's moment into a memory, with Tejada leading the charge to second base, embracing Palmeiro one by one, from Tejada and Mora all the way to Terry Crowley and Sam Perlozzo.

For his entire career, Palmeiro has been mostly overshadowed by other more flamboyant, center-stage stars.

With the Chicago Cubs, Palmeiro was second fiddle to Andre Dawson and Ryne Sandburg. With the Texas Rangers, he was out-flanked by Nolan Ryan, Juan Gonzalez, Ivan Rodriguez.

In Baltimore, the first time, Palmeiro was fourth fiddle behind Cal Ripken, Roberto Alomar and Eddie Murray.

Back in Texas, I-Rod was joined by Alex Rodriguez and Palmeiro was a lesser luminary, the low-profile Hall of Famer in the making.

Even this season, with Tejada claiming the Orioles as his team and Sammy Sosa brought in as a bargain basement/publicity headliner, Palmeiro is not the frontline star or face of the franchise.

But he is the one with the homers and, now, the hits. The stage was all his and he took it, eschewing his customary reluctance to stop and see what it is he has done in this game of baseball.

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