Palmeiro adapts to lonely star state

March 01, 1994|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Writer

SARASOTA, FLA — SARASOTA, Fla. -- It might be very hard for the average fan to understand, but Rafael Palmeiro is living proof that money cannot buy happiness.

The 29-year-old first baseman has all the money he and his family will ever need. He recently signed a five-year, $30.35 million contract with the Orioles that makes him one of the highest-paid players in baseball. By all outward appearances, life couldn't be better, and yet Palmeiro is not quite ready to enjoy it.

He still is getting used to the idea that he will not be batting third for the Texas Rangers this year. He is trying to come to grips with a dream that somehow got derailed and a future that --

however bright -- is not quite what he had in mind.

"It's going to take some time to get adjusted," he said. "It's been hard this off-season, living in Arlington [Texas] and hearing about the Rangers every day. It's hard to deal with that. I couldn't wait to get out of there and get this thing going."

This was supposed to be the year that he hit the Texas lottery, cashing in on an MVP-caliber season that included 37 home runs and 105 RBIs. Instead, the Rangers signed his former college teammate, Will Clark, and left Palmeiro adrift in a diminishing free-agent market.

L That stunning bit of news sent a shudder through his family.

"It changed the outlook of everything," he said. "The whole idea was to build our dream house in Texas, sign and stay there. That's going to be our home."

That's the way Palmeiro had envisioned it all along, but he apparently didn't realize how cold the business of baseball can become when you're negotiating at the top of the game's salary structure.

The Rangers probably felt they were being more than fair to offer him a five-year deal worth $26.5 million early in the negotiations, but Palmeiro was shocked when they quickly gave up on signing him and committed more than that to sign Clark.

"It wasn't fun," he said. "It was actually hell for two months. The Rangers chose to make it hell for me. I don't understand that. That was hard after the kind of career I had for them. I had an MVP-caliber year for them, and they misled me the whole way. They led me to believe that they were going to sign me, but they never really intended to."

Normally a mild-mannered guy, Palmeiro lashed out at the Rangers and blasted Clark -- who had played three years with him at Mississippi State. He later apologized for the outburst, but there is no mistaking the hard feelings that remain.

Two months later, he's still dealing with the separation. The contract he got from the Orioles will guarantee that he is a very rich man for the rest of his life, but he hasn't entirely gotten used to the idea of playing in Baltimore.

"I think it would be fine if I hadn't intended to live there," he said. "The kind of year I put together, I earned that right [to negotiate for a big contract]. When I wanted to stay there, that made it tougher."

Nevertheless, construction continues on the new home in Arlington, which will be complete by the end of the season. Palmeiro, jilted by the Rangers and likely to be reminded of it daily in Arlington, still intends to raise his family in Texas.

"I think we've pretty much decided Texas will be our home," he said. "It's close to my wife's family and not too far from Miami. The weather is great and the people are good. Nothing against Baltimore. I know I'm going to make a lot of friends there, but I don't want to deal with snow and cold weather."

Yet Palmeiro found out this year that a cold shoulder feels the same in any climate, and -- as difficult as it was -- he chose the team that gave him the warmest welcome.

Why the Orioles? The money was the main thing, of course. The Orioles were willing to offer the same kind of deal that Clark got in Texas, even though the market for first basemen had softened with a series of earlier signings.

"There were a lot of things that came into it," he said. "The stadium, the fan support, the players on the team, the exposure that I can get here . . . a lot of those things."

Palmeiro turned in a career performance last year, but the limelight generally shined on home run champion Juan Gonzalez -- when there was any limelight at all. The focus had shifted almost entirely to the Super Bowl champion Dallas Cowboys by the time Palmeiro's numbers turned him into the Rangers' other legitimate MVP candidate.

vTC "If I put up those numbers here, I think I will be considered and recognized," he said.

Gonzalez was no slouch, of course. He batted .310 with 46 home runs and 118 RBIs and finished fourth in the MVP balloting. Palmeiro finished behind him in the three Triple Crown categories, but led the league in runs scored. He ranked eighth in the voting.

The Rangers figure to be the favorite in the realigned American League West this year, but Palmeiro thinks that the Orioles may be in a better position to win the pennant.

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