Say it ain't so


THIS WAS supposed to be Rafael Palmeiro's big year. A player who accumulates 3,000 hits over the course of a career is destined for the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the Orioles first baseman hit the magic number just over two weeks ago. But yesterday, Mr. Palmeiro earned a less savory statistic. He became the seventh player to test positive for steroids since Major League Baseball started cracking down on their use this year.

Mr. Palmeiro got slapped with a 10-day suspension from baseball, but that's the least-embarrassing part of it. Just before the season started, the veteran ballplayer told members of Congress that he had never used steroids. Ever. He also vehemently denied Jose Canseco's claim that he had instructed Mr. Palmeiro on the practice years earlier. Yesterday, Mr. Palmeiro maintained that he has never intentionally taken steroids. But with such a heightened concern over steroids, fans are likely to wonder: How could an experienced baseball player take them unintentionally?

For Orioles fans, the news has all the pleasure of a brush-back pitch. Bad enough that the once-promising team is mired in an unrelenting collapse that has revealed the inadequacies of not only the hitting and pitching but its management and ownership, too. While the team swooned, fans could find a measure of solace in the exploits of a likable player whose record of 3,018 hits and 569 home runs ranks him with the cream of the baseball crop: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray. No more. Mr. Palmeiro deserves the benefit of the doubt, but to test positive during baseball's ruinous summer of steroids? And to have no idea how? Well, as earlier generations of fans said of "Shoeless" Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, it sure doesn't look good.

Too bad baseball doesn't have do-overs; Mr. Palmeiro could use a mulligan right about now. Just weeks ago, fans could debate his worthiness for Cooperstown and argue that sustained excellence - a remarkable 10 100-plus RBI seasons, for instance - was underrated. But now, doubt hovers over his accomplishments just as it has caught so many sluggers of his era. Names such as McGwire, Sosa, Bonds and now Palmeiro may ultimately be remembered not for their towering blasts but as victims of the me-first home run mentality that former Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg decried at his Hall of Fame induction this weekend. "Play it right and with respect," the nine-time Gold Glove winner said of the game.

Playing the game on steroids, intentionally taken or not, is neither.

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