SO, Rafael Palmeiro is still lawyering up. Fine. He spent the last nine days of his 10-day steroid suspension in silence and solitude.

If it's good enough for him, it should be good enough for you, Orioles fans.

Wondering what to do tonight, the official end of Palmeiro's insultingly brief punishment, when he suits up again at Camden Yards? Try this: stay home.

Baltimore, you've got one shot at this. There will never again be a first game back for the first superstar caught by baseball's steroid program. Tonight, when the nation tunes in to see how Palmeiro's own fans react to his return, it will tuck the sight and sound and memory of it away forever. You can't afford to blow this.

There's a chance he won't set foot out of the dugout tonight. That first trot to his position at first base might have to wait, as will his first walk to the plate, even the first mention of his name on the PA system.

Never mind that. Even if the man himself is invisible, the disgrace of how this entire situation has evolved - the flunking of the test itself, the manipulation of the appeal to keep the 3,000th-hit hype intact, the wrist slap, the lying, the information leak, the all-around hypocrisy and dishonesty - will be in plain view.

Your options? Booing would be quite effective. So would banners and chants and turning a collective back to the field whenever he appears or has his name called.

All tempting, but not good enough this time. Palmeiro would hear an earful, but Major League Baseball would get a vault-ful of your ticket, parking and beer money as well.

Palmeiro and the players, supported by a union that helped get a steroid cheat back into uniform in a week and a half, would then get their cut of that.

And when they all see the high attendance figures and revenue at the end of the season (as they have throughout the entire Needle-ball Era), they'll get the idea that everything is just fine, that justice has been served, that the public accepts, condones and embraces what's going on.

It's not. It hasn't. And you'd better not.

So stay home. Think about it: what would make more noise, 48,000 boos or 48,000 empty seats?

Of course, I'm getting paid to be there, and I'm not eating a season ticket out of principle. So you don't have to listen to me. But would you listen to Donald Hooton?

"I think at the very least, I'd react negatively to [Palmeiro] when he came out," Hooton said yesterday. "I would be one of those booing in the stands. And at the very most, I'd skip the game."

In case you've forgotten, Hooton testified before Congress on the same day in March that Palmeiro shook that finger at the panel. (Hooton was sitting in a row behind him, and didn't notice the finger routine until he watched the news later. "I thought, 'Methinks he doth protest too much,' " he said.)

Hooton testified that day because two years earlier, his teenage son Taylor killed himself in what is believed was a deep depression brought on by his steroid abuse. The father's mission since then has been to steer kids and parents from the same fate, and to speak truth to home run power.

Hooton has talked a lot this year. Last weekend, he joined a panel on steroids in sports at the National Association of Black Journalists convention in Atlanta. Yesterday he was traveling to Chicago for a speaking engagement, then to Kansas City, then back home to the Dallas suburbs before starting again.

Along the way, though, he will monitor the proceedings at Camden Yards. He likely won't see Palmeiro tonight, but his focus would be less on the field than in the stands anyway.

"If the stadium is full and they give Palmeiro a standing ovation when he walks out on the field, we'll know we haven't made a dent in this thing yet," Hooton said. "And Palmeiro and the rest of the players will get the message that it's OK."

That's why fans have to react the right way, for the right reasons. It would be too easy, for example, to stay home just because the Orioles are under .500 again. It would also be too easy to make this all about Palmeiro - justifiable as that seems - because he's only a symptom of the disease.

Hold onto your disgust with the won-lost record, and even with the player, for another time. "It's about the kids," Hooton said.

It's also about accountability. Nobody seems to be showing any, and it may be because the fans aren't demanding any.

"The question is whether finally, hopefully, outside of Palmeiro and Selig and Major League Baseball and the union, the public has finally had enough," Hooton said. "Is it going to take this issue seriously? Is it important enough to us?

"The way the fans are going to act is a barometer of how effective we are in getting our message out," he added.

Donald Hooton, on behalf of the son he buried too soon, is asking you to show him something. The best thing to show him is an empty ballpark.

So stay home.