When former Oriole Rafael Palmeiro told Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic recently that he hopes to stage a comeback at age 53, it took me right back to spring training in 1991.
That was the year that Hall of Famer Jim Palmer decided that he still had something left in the tank and got himself invited to camp to compete for a place on the young Orioles pitching staff.
Obviously, everyone was skeptical. Palmer had just been inducted into the Hall of Fame and he had not pitched for the Orioles since making five appearances in 1984.
Still, he wasn’t 53 and he wasn’t a position player. He was 45 and there was another guy still pitching in the American League (Nolan Ryan) who was little more than a year younger than him who had just won his league’s strikeout title for the fourth year in a row.
Palmer said in a telephone interview on Thursday that he has great respect for the talent Palmeiro displayed during his career, but was incredulous that he would believe he can replicate that 12 years after his last major league at bat.
“Is he serious?’’ Palmer said. “He’s 53. I was 45, and the only reason that I thought I could do it — to be quite honest — was just because the standards had been lowered as far as what they expected from starting pitching. I didn’t think I could go back to pitch the way I did, but back then (in 1991) getting 15 or 18 outs? They’re still asking for that. The game has changed. They’re willing to accept less.”
Palmer didn’t embarrass himself. He had decent command of his pitches and made one exhibition appearance against the Boston Red Sox before giving up the attempt because of a hamstring tear.
He just needed to know, after not feeling that he left the mound on his own terms five years earlier.
Palmeiro has a bigger dragon to slay. He told Rosenthal that showing he can still hit at 53 might convince some people that he was telling the truth when he said that he unintentionally ingested the steroid Winstrol during the 2005 season.
He paid a heavy price for being baseball’s first superstar to test positive under baseball’s new perfomance-enhancing drug program. He quickly left the game in disgrace and was snubbed by Hall of Fame voters because of his association with baseball’s PED scandal.
There was some logic in his alibi. He insisted that there was no reason anyone would knowingly take that risk at the point where he was in his storied career, but it didn’t matter. He became the poster boy for PED abuse.
Keep in mind, however, that Palmeiro’s numbers were in decline those last two years with the Orioles. Palmer certainly remembers it that way.
“I still recall coming out of the clubhouse in early April in 2005 and he needed 78 hits (to get to 3,000) and he’s hitting off the tee,’’ Palmer said. “And I had watched him a little bit in spring training and then at the beginning of the season I’m going, ‘Wow, there’s no bat speed. None.’ And I’m a guy who made his living for a long time judging guys’ bat speeds.
“And I’m going, ‘Boy, to get him enough at-bats to get 78 hits, it could be a painful process both for him and the Orioles.’ And it turned out, the next month his bat got a lot quicker. I didn’t know he had tested positive after he pointed at Congress and so on, but at the end of the day, he was losing bat speed in 2005. So, why would you think 12 years later that somehow (that would change)?”
So, here we are all these years later and Palmeiro still wants a chance to clear his name … or maybe he just wants to look like he wants to clear his name in the hopes of getting some sympathy from the voters who will make up the Hall of Fame’s “Today’s Game” committee that will consider overlooked players who ended their careers from 1988 to the present.
Palmeiro will become eligible again for HOF consideration in 2021.
No one can argue with his numbers, but it’s going to be hard to find enough voters willing to take him at his word.
Is it possible that he can still play?
“I just wonder what the thought process would be,’’ Palmer said. “It’s nothing personal. When you’re bat speed was suspect in 2005, if you’re a realist, why would you think 12 years later you’ve found the fountain of youth?”
Who knows? He would certainly make for an interesting storyline during the boring early days of spring training, but it is highly unlikely that any major league team is going to invite him to camp … and the Orioles already have too many first basemen.