J. Lewis stays upfront, leaving Palmeiro behind


IT IS MORE of Rafael Palmeiro's bad luck that Jamal Lewis picked yesterday to face the public, again.

Well, "luck" isn't the right word. After all, Palmeiro will have you believe that bad luck got him into the mess he's in, that of all the nutritional supplements in all the packages in all the GNCs in all the world, Winstrol got inadvertently slipped into his.

No, Palmeiro's problem was bad timing. As the stench surrounding his failed steroid test spreads, the disgraced Orioles slugger didn't need to have the disgraced Ravens running back step before the cameras and explain himself. Palmeiro didn't need anyone around here acting maturely, professionally and honorably. Especially not anyone 15 years younger. It only makes his own behavior look even more cowardly and dishonest.

Lewis spoke after his first workout with the Ravens since his release from time served on a drug conspiracy conviction. It was at least the third time he has come clean in public this way, including the day his plea bargain was accepted in October and the day he transferred to an Atlanta halfway house in June. Each time, the message was hammered home a little deeper: He's doing the right thing, he's doing the right thing ...

That's the latest standard against which Palmeiro is being measured - and he's coming up pathetically short. Against the Nixon measuring stick, on the other hand, or the Clinton stick or Dubya stick, he's doing pretty well. On the bright side, maybe we can now update the legendary Babe Ruth line. You lie more than the president of the United States. Yeah, but I had a better year than him!

Still, Palmeiro returns from his suspension tomorrow, and the world is still waiting for something from him other than those conference-call replies that later were exposed in all their fraudulent glory. Now, if and when he does speak up, his words and actions will be instantly graded against Lewis' showing yesterday and during the past year.

It ought to cost Mr. Finger-Wagger a few nights' sleep to ponder the idea that, next to him, a convicted drug felon is looking like St. Francis of Assisi. Considering that most of America will still accept steroid abuse over cocaine trafficking if given a choice, the stain on Palmeiro's reputation is even more damning.

It's all because Lewis has stood up and taken responsibility for his actions, paid the price in prison time and in the scarring of his good name and refused to hide from the consequences.

And because Palmeiro hasn't.

Lewis would have surprised no one had he pulled a Jason Giambi or a Kenny Rogers, reading an inane statement and answering no questions, or had he gone Big Mac on us, claiming he wasn't there to talk about the past. Instead, in his 15 minutes at the mike, he shied away from nothing. He spoke of what he had learned, and when he talked about his future, he didn't restrict his thoughts to how many yards he might gain this season.

"I was put in that position for a reason," Lewis said, referring to his prison and halfway house stints. "I realize how lucky we players are, and I realized who my real friends are. It's like now I'm starting over brand new."

There was no place to hide: Lewis stood (no podium, no seat) in the middle of the lobby of the Ravens' training camp hotel, with teammates headed to lunch squeezing around camera crews and reporters. He looked as if he'd rather have been anywhere else on the planet. But he stood his ground, not only stating his case, but also leaving himself vulnerable to the repercussions.

There was nothing he could have done or said that would have changed the reason he was there: because he screwed up. So he didn't try.

In Palmeiro's defense, it took several years for Lewis' misdeeds to come to full light, as opposed to the week and a half (or, to be accurate, three months) since Palmeiro was caught with his hand in the syringe jar. Then again, in Lewis' defense, he'd never sworn in front of Congress that he'd never, ever, used a cell phone to commit a drug felony, period.

Either way, busted is busted, and once you are, it's your choice not to further bust yourself by trying to lie your way out of it.

Maybe when this has been, to paraphrase Lewis, hanging over his head for five years, Palmeiro will be in position to be the kind of standup guy Lewis has been.

But he won't be able to look back and say, as Lewis did yesterday, "Just the way I carried myself really paid off."

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