Palmeiro's Will to excel is O's plus

December 12, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Timing is everything, especially when signing major free agents. Rafael Palmeiro is a better fit for the Orioles than he was a month ago. For that, we can thank Palmeiro's good friend, Will Clark.

It would have been different if Palmeiro had signed first and received a more lucrative contract. But both the Orioles and Texas preferred Clark, triggering the impulse that has motivated Palmeiro his entire career.

Strange as it might sound, Palmeiro now has something to prove -- even though he's coming off a 37-homer, 105-RBI season, and is expected to sign a five-year deal with the Orioles similar to the one the Rangers gave Clark.

Palmeiro has been haunted by Clark -- obsessed with him, really -- ever since the two were teammates at Mississippi State. And, just when he thought he had proved himself the better player, his own team spurned him for his bitter rival.

That's why Palmeiro went berserk over the Clark signing, calling Clark "a lowlife" with "no class" and Rangers president Tom Schieffer "a back-stabbing liar." Palmeiro later apologized to Clark, but his tantrum -- while totally out of character -- was not all that surprising.

Both Palmeiro and Clark are 29, both swing left-handed, both play first base. That's where the similarities end. Palmeiro is a laid-back Cuban immigrant who arrived in the United States in 1971. Clark is a fiery Louisiana native who once was accused of being a racist by former San Francisco teammate Jeffrey Leonard.

Their rivalry dates to 1984, when Palmeiro and Clark were sophomores at Mississippi State. Palmeiro became the first Triple Crown winner in Southeastern Conference history that season. Clark was nearly as good, and it appeared the two might go 1-2 in the '85 draft.

But suddenly, everything changed. First, Clark got added exposure as a member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team -- the Cuban-born Palmeiro was not eligible. Then, as a junior, Clark won the Golden Spikes Award as the nation's best collegiate player while Palmeiro slumped.

Clark became the No. 2 pick in the draft behind B. J. Surhoff. Palmeiro dropped to No. 22 in a first round that included Bobby Witt (No. 3), Barry Larkin (4), Barry Bonds (6), Pete Incaviglia (8), Walt Weiss (11), Tommy Greene (14), Brian McRae (17), Joe Magrane (18) and Gregg Jefferies (20).

Clark signed with San Francisco for $160,000; Palmeiro got $60,000 less from the Chicago Cubs. Orioles scouting director Gary Nickels describes the parallel to the free-agent developments as "eerie." Nickels should know. He helped land Palmeiro for the Cubs.

Nickels was the Cubs' Midwest scouting supervisor then. Earl Winn, the area scout assigned to Palmeiro, is now with the Orioles as well. They met with Palmeiro and his future wife, Lynne Walden, at a Holiday Inn in Starkville, Miss. The signing was completed in less than 24 hours.

"The gist of it was, he was anxious to get signed to prove to people he was better than the 22nd pick in the country," Nickels recalled yesterday. "I remember when he signed. It was just ......TC statement, not a boast. But he said, 'I'm going to be successful, I'm going to be a good major-league player.' "

Winn had noted that quiet intensity in a pre-draft interview with Palmeiro. Even then, there were charges that Palmeiro was "soft" -- especially when compared with Clark. But that wasn't Winn's impression when they met face-to-face.

"Will would wear his emotions on his sleeve. Rafael kept more things inside," Winn said. "But the feeling I got was that this is a guy that wants to win very, very badly. He had a burning desire to achieve, to achieve in a big way. I came out of the interview thinking, 'Wow!' "

Palmeiro signed on June 11, 1985. He made his major-league debut on Sept. 8, 1986. He hit .307 with 41 doubles in 1988. It was a stunning ascent, but Clark produced the first of his three 100-RBI seasons in '88. The Cubs were disappointed that Palmeiro drove in half as many runs.

So, with Mark Grace ready at first base, the Cubs traded Palmeiro to Texas in a 10-player deal that winter. At first, it appeared the Cubs made the better deal -- Mitch Williams helped them win the division title in '89. But Palmeiro averaged 21 homers and 87 RBIs from '90 to '92, then exploded last season.

He had something to prove coming out of college. He had something to prove after going to Texas. And now, he has something to prove again. The Orioles didn't plan it this way, but they're about to get Rafael Palmeiro under the perfect circumstances. Once and for all, he must show the world he's a better player than Will Clark.

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