Baltimore Orioles

Palmeiro back to a game in crisis of faith

Journalists surround Rafael Palmeiro before batting practice. "I appreciated the fans cheering and supporting me," he said later.
Palmeiro back as fans question game's soul

In Aberdeen yesterday, in the hot summer sun, children of all ages played baseball.

The kids, some as young as 8, took batting practice and shagged fly balls on fields where the green grass is mowed in perfectly straight lines. On picnic tables not far from the field, mothers and fathers who had traveled thousands of miles to Maryland for the Ripken World Series looked on as their sons laughed, played catch and innocently dreamed, perhaps one day, of a career in the big leagues.

About 35 miles south, in Baltimore yesterday, on a warm summer night, grown men also played baseball. They too took batting practice and shagged flies on a field where the green grass is mowed in perfectly straight lines. But for the grown men, many of whom make millions of dollars as professional baseball players, there was little laughter and certainly no innocence.

Instead, there was a horde of media armed with cameras and tape recorders, all of them hungry to get some answers from the one man who wanted to do anything besides talk.

Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro returned yesterday, but did not play, after serving a 10-day suspension for violating Major League Baseball's steroids policy. His transgressions, however, weren't just felt inside the brick walls of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

"He broke a lot of people's hearts," said Matt Morris, a 10-year-old outfielder and pitcher from Charlottesville, Va., attending Ripken Baseball camp this week. "A couple of months ago, he told everyone he didn't take steroids, and then they found out he did. It should be a bigger punishment."

The impact of Palmeiro's behavior was also felt by parents and coaches, who are often the ones forced to come up with answers for their kids when an athlete falls from grace.

"Everything in life has rules," Greg Morris said he told his son, Matt, about Palmeiro's situation. "We all make choices. Just like in school. You have to deal with the consequences of your choices. And that's what's happening with Raffy."

Palmeiro's suspension, which wasn't announced until Aug. 1 even though he reportedly tested positive in May, has been yet another black eye for a sport that is desperately trying to maintain its status as America's national pastime. The fact that Palmeiro became the newest member of the 3,000-hit club and the first high-profile star to be suspended for steroid use all in a matter of weeks was certainly embarrassing for baseball. But in reality, it was simply the latest blunder in a long list of public relations nightmares for the game.

Before the season, New York Yankees slugger Jason Giambi admitted during grand jury testimony that he had used steroids, and that his use dated back several years. Giambi was the American League Most Valuable Player in 2000, when he played for the Oakland Athletics.

In similar testimony, San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds, a seven-time National League MVP and one of only three players in history to hit at least 700 home runs, said he might have taken steroids unknowingly after getting them from his personal trainer, Greg Anderson. Both Giambi and Bonds agreed to give their testimony as part of a federal investigation into BALCO, a California company charged with distributing undetectable steroids to elite athletes.

Two years ago, baseball suspended one of its biggest stars, former Chicago Cub and current Oriole Sammy Sosa, when he was caught using a corked bat during a game. Sosa, as well as Palmeiro, denied using steroids when testifying before Congress in March.

"I think everyone was surprised" Palmeiro tested positive after testifying that he didn't take steroids, said Ryan Adams, an 18-year-old shortstop from New Orleans who was in town for the AFLAC Classic, a four-day event held at Towson University and Cal Ripken Stadium for the top high school prospects in the country. "He was blunt about it. He said, 'I did not do it.' Obviously, he lied. All the guys, Sosa, Bonds, they're all taking stuff. All the players are saying 50 to 70 percent of the guys are on [steroids]. I guess it's part of the game."

Adams said he didn't believe Palmeiro's claim that he might have taken steroids accidentally.

"You can't take something accidentally," Adams said. "He knew what he put in his body, and now he's trying to get around it. He didn't think he was going to get caught, and now he did. I think if he took it, and he got caught, he should be man enough to tell people what he did and say that he's sorry."

Some, however, were eager to forgive Palmeiro, both inside the Orioles clubhouse and in the stands. Before Palmeiro took the field for the first time last night, Orioles shortstop Miguel Tejada put his arm around Palmeiro and walked to the top of the dugout steps, past a throng of reporters.

"He made a mistake," Tejada said. "He said he is sorry."

But with Palmeiro unwilling to say much at all, especially about steroids, during a brief session with the media, it was mostly up to his teammates and his manager to defend him and the game of baseball.

"He doesn't have to talk to me about it," said Orioles reliever Steve Kline. "He has nothing to explain to anybody on this team, I don't think. He's a good person. He just wants to play ball. That's all we want to do. We just want to get this distraction out of the way."

Orioles pitcher Jason Grimsley conceded that baseball has taken a public relations hit in recent years because of steroid allegations, but he pointed out that the game is being cleaned up.

"There's definitely been something that has been taken away [from fans], but there are steps being made and things being done to fix that," Grimsley said. "I hope the fans see that, I hope the public see that, and I think the people in Major League Baseball offices and the people on Capitol Hill see the efforts that are being made to change things."

Orioles fan Kevin "K.C." Richardson of Glen Burnie, who attended last night's game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, was willing to forgive Palmeiro as well. He brought a tapestry that he painted of Palmeiro to give to the first baseman, and said he remains a fan.

"I believe whatever he did, that's on him. That's between him and God," Richardson said. "He's already forgiven ... because he did his time like a gentleman."

Palmeiro said after the game that he was touched by the reception he got from some fans.

"It was good. I really appreciated that," he said. "I appreciated the fans cheering and supporting me. They just were happy for me to be back."

Plenty of Orioles fans, though, weren't ready to turn the other cheek just yet. Scott Anderson, a police officer from Harrisonburg, Va., showed up at the game with three friends, all wearing orange-and-black T-shirts with Palmeiro's No. 25 on the back and "Hall of Shame" and a syringe on the front.

All four men sat in box seats just behind the Orioles dugout and cheered for their team. They said they'd be back tonight, with their custom-made shirts that cost $52 total.

"I was Raffy's biggest fan because he was the exception to all these other cases," Anderson said. "When I heard the news, I said to myself, 'Who do I believe anymore?' "

Neal Davis, a 17-year-old left-handed pitcher from Catonsville, said that as a lifelong Orioles fan, he wants to believe and forgive Palmeiro. But for that to happen, Palmeiro has to speak up and explain himself.

"He has to be upfront about it, whether he was taking it on purpose or accidentally," Davis said. "If he lied in front of Congress, he shouldn't keep lying. He should just come out with it and let it be known. If he gives the full story, then maybe it will be a little bit easier to forgive him for what he did."

Sun staff writers Candus Thomson, Jeff Zrebiec, Bill Ordine and Dan Connolly contributed to this article.