In a blink, Hall uncertain

Citing a confidentiality agreement with Major League Baseball repeatedly during a 25-minute teleconference yesterday, Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro avoided specific questions about when and what he might have taken that triggered a failed steroids test and a subsequent 10-day suspension.

Another question he couldn't answer, however, is the one that surely will cloud the twilight of Palmeiro's career and his first few years in retirement.

Will yesterday's announcement and suspension taint his legacy and cost him a spot in the Hall of Fame? "That's not for me to determine," Palmeiro said. "I hope that people look at my whole career and appreciate that I have given everything I've got. I respect the game, I respect my opponents, I respect the players who have come before me.

"I respect the Hall of Fame. And if they think I am worthy enough, I would be very honored. And if they don't, I gave all that I had to this game."

Palmeiro, whose 18-year career always has been overshadowed by teammates and bigger stars at his position, seemingly received his just due July 15 when he doubled against Seattle to record his 3,000th hit. He joined Hall of Famers Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray as the only men with 3,000 hits and more than 500 home runs.

It seemed a near certainty he would take his place alongside them in Cooperstown, perhaps in his first year of eligibility - five years after his retirement.

Roughly two weeks after his biggest baseball high, though, the 40-year-old Palmeiro's chances at Cooperstown are tenuous.

"There is no doubt in my mind that Rafael Palmeiro has impeccable Hall of Fame credentials as a player," said T.R. Sullivan, president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, the organization that votes for Hall of Fame induction. "But all players from the current era are going to have to deal with the shadows of this. There is absolutely no way around it.

"And it is not going to go away."

Buster Olney, senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a former baseball writer for The Sun, said on ESPN yesterday that he would vote for Palmeiro "and grit my teeth while doing it."

Sullivan, a baseball writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram who covered Palmeiro while he was with the Texas Rangers, said voters have looked past disturbing developments in players' careers previously.

As examples, he mentioned Hall of Fame pitchers Juan Marichal (assaulting an opponent with a bat), Gaylord Perry (spitballs) and Ferguson Jenkins (drug arrest).

He believes it is the responsibility of his members to weigh the steroids issue when voting for induction. Ryne Sandberg, the former Chicago Cubs second baseman, said as much during his speech Sunday at the Hall of Fame induction, which Sullivan attended.

"You listen to Ryne Sandberg's awesome speech and these players are definitely going to be held accountable," Sullivan said. "Sandberg's speech was the keynote address for former players on this subject."

Orioles Hall of Fame pitcher and current broadcaster Jim Palmer said he wants more information before he makes any judgment regarding Palmeiro.

"I don't know what the substance is, what the circumstances are. You just don't know," Palmer said. "I don't think a lot of people know and the testing doesn't allow you to know."

He blamed the players union for resisting testing and skirting the steroids issue until recently. Because of that, there is no way to know whose career numbers are inflated and whose aren't.

"Obviously, there's been a suspension," Palmer said. "Does that indict him for the last 18 years? I don't know. You have to have an open mind."

Orioles TV broadcaster Buck Martinez, a former major league player and manager, said the Palmeiro incident calls into question this entire generation of players. And it further confuses the next generation of baseball fans.

"We heard from some of the fans today," Martinez said. "About how they brought their kids to the game and they were looking at that 3,000-hit banner [honoring Palmeiro] and saying, 'What's that mean, Dad?'"

It also sent ripples of confusion through the baseball world.

Mississippi State baseball coach Ron Polk was walking toward the Palmeiro Center on the Starkville (Miss.) campus yesterday afternoon to give a tour of the partially completed, multimillion-dollar, indoor facility when he heard that the man who provided the seed money for the complex had failed the drug test.

"I said, 'No way,' " Polk recalled.

He finished the tour and went directly to his office, where he found a press release confirming the news.

"I don't know what it all means," said Polk, Palmeiro's college manager for three seasons. "I don't know if it was in prescription drugs or over-the-counter. He's saying he can't identify it. And I have to go along with my guy."

But not everyone will be so charitable.

Regardless of the intention, Palmeiro failed a drug test.

It came five months after his former Texas Rangers teammate, Jose Canseco, alleged in a tell-all book that he injected Palmeiro with steroids and more than four months after Palmeiro pointed his finger at a congressional hearing and vehemently denied ever using performance-enhancing drugs.

Yesterday's revelation is a "black eye" to Palmeiro's image, according to Steve Lauletta, president of Radiate Sports Group, a sports marketing firm in Charlotte, N.C.

Lasting damage can be avoided only if Major League Baseball admits it made a mistake, Lauletta said. Short of that, this will - and should - follow Palmeiro, he added.

"They are paid millions of dollars to know what's going in their bodies, what's legal and not legal," Lauletta said. "I think they have to accept responsibility. That's why I don't think intentional vs. unintentional really matters."

Never a marketing darling - Palmeiro's most recognizable endorsement was for Viagra, an erectile-dysfunction medication - his 3,000th hit might have helped him land further deals, Lauletta said. But not now.

Perhaps no one has a better idea of what is in store for Palmeiro than Minnesota Twins reliever Juan Rincon, who failed a drug test in May.

As a key member of a bullpen that helped the Twins reach the postseason in 2004, Rincon had been the most recognizable name to be suspended for steroid use this year.

"It's pretty hard. Everybody is going to point fingers at you," said Rincon, who served his suspension, but also has maintained he took steroids inadvertently.

He said he hasn't been the target of razzing from fans at other stadiums. However, the road might be a lot rougher for Palmeiro, he said.

"There's no comparison between his career and my career," Rincon said. "You go to a town and people don't know your name. But Palmeiro, I'm pretty sure they know his name."

"I don't want to be in his shoes," Rincon added. "I feel sad. I feel bad because he is a great person."

Sun staff writers Jeff Zrebiec and Roch Kubatko contributed to this article.