THE IMAGE still lingers. Rafael Palmeiro, called to testify before a congressional committee on March 17, pointed his finger at committee chairman Tom Davis and denied that he had ever used illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

There was no tortured legal obfuscation ... just a direct statement that left Palmeiro looking like Caesar's wife while Mark McGwire steered clumsily around the fundamental question until his image looked as if it had been in a head-on collision.

It was all very disappointing, but our local heroes (Sammy Sosa also strongly denied any steroid abuse) emerged untainted, and we could afford to be big about it and feel sorry for Big Mac, even as he shrunk to pre-andro proportions right before our eyes. Now, we've got our smoking gun, and it's pointed at our guy, and it doesn't feel too good.

Palmeiro tried to explain himself during a conference call yesterday. He insisted that he must have ingested the prohibited substance by accident and said - as he did before Congress - that he remains foursquare behind the efforts of both politicians and baseball management to eradicate the use of performance-enhancing drugs from the sport.

I want to believe him. I want to believe that he walked into GNC and picked up some legal supplement, and it contained trace elements of some substance that's on that long, long list of chemicals that are banned under the terms of Major League Baseball's recently upgraded (but not upgraded enough) steroid policy.

I want to believe it because Palmeiro doesn't fit the profile. He's not some pumped-up cartoon character like McGwire, and he never exhibited the classic steroid symptoms. He isn't covered with acne or prone to unexplainable fits of rage. He has always been a solid guy and a solid citizen.

I want to believe him, but I wish that agent Arn Tellem had not interrupted question after question to tell everyone that Raffy really wants to say more but that the situation is governed by a confidentiality agreement that prohibits him from being more specific. The I-want-to-tell-you-but-my-lawyer-won't-let-me defense didn't work for McGwire, and it didn't help much this time, either.

Which takes us back to that hearing room, where I sat and shook my head every time Jose Canseco opened his mouth, and I wondered why anyone would believe such a sleazebag. It's still hard to imagine Canseco and McGwire squeezing into a bathroom stall to do their dirty steroid business, but Palmeiro's positive steroid test has made it all plausible again.

If you were skeptical March 17, it is all starting to come together. Palmeiro pointing at Davis, just like a certain former president pointed at the cameras and said, "I did not have sex with that woman." Body language experts claimed afterward that the finger-pointing by President Clinton was a tell ... that it proved he was being deceptive. The same issue came up after Palmeiro's testimony, but there was no real basis to dispute Palmeiro's protestation of innocence, unless you were willing to rate his credibility below Canseco's. Maybe now you are.

There are a few facts that would help clarify the issue. When was the test performed? What substance was detected? You would think it would be in Palmeiro's interest to release that information if it supported his story. I'm not buying Tellem's suggestion that Palmeiro has signed away his First Amendment right to defend his honor.

I'm also not buying into the notion that this is some kind of public relations disaster for Major League Baseball. It is just the opposite.

Steroid experts have been questioning the credibility of baseball's steroid program since the original survey testing began more than two years ago. Critics nodded knowingly every time a marginal player was identified as a cheat, but they insisted that the program would not have any real credibility until a big-name player was caught in the net.

Well, that just happened, and it's not just any big-name player. It's a big-name player who is a personal friend of the president of the United States (who had been part-owner of the Rangers when Palmeiro played in Texas) and who also is on a newly created congressional panel that aims to educate young athletes about the dangers of steroid abuse.

In a sense, this is just what baseball commissioner Bud Selig needed to prove to Congress that baseball isn't looking for loopholes to keep steroid cheats out of the headlines. Palmeiro just became the poster boy for the current steroid plan, though Selig still wants to dramatically increase the penalties for each positive test.

Palmeiro, however, figures to pay a much heavier price than anyone else who has tested positive so far. He was on the fast track to the Hall of Fame after recording his 3,000th career hit July 15. He was a slam-dunk first-ballot inductee, even if there were some talk-show types who questioned whether he is truly one of the dominant players of his era.

When he got hit No. 3,000, he joined the only three other players - Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray - to amass at least 500 home runs and 3,000 hits, and that is such rarified company that there was no question whatsoever that he would receive the required 75 percent of the vote for induction at Cooperstown on the first ballot.

That all changed yesterday, though I still believe he (and McGwire and Barry Bonds) will eventually get into the Hall. Now, the potential voters who were willing to disregard the fact that he has never won a home run title or Most Valuable Player trophy will have another reason to wait until the second or third ballot, or even turn their faces away from him completely.

Barring any further damning revelations, it probably would be unfair to consider his entire career tainted by this one incident. He says he ingested the substance accidentally, and he made a compelling argument that he would have been crazy to knowingly violate baseball's steroid policy at this late stage in his career.

McGwire, during his embarrassing testimony before Congress, gave every indication short of an outright confession that he used steroids, but he also retained just enough deniability to keep his Hall of Fame candidacy viable.

The Hall of Fame voters certainly won't forget what happened to McGwire's image on March 17 or what happened yesterday, but they are going to need more proof to make those two great players pay for the sins of an entire sport. In the meantime, it would be nice to have a few more details, but on the advice of counsel, Palmeiro kept them to himself.

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