Now it's time for Palmeiro to let his bat do the talking

April 17, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Rafael Palmeiro is teammates with Cal Ripken now, and even after igniting last night's 6-4 comeback victory over Texas, he should consider sitting down with the future Hall of Famer for a lesson on how to handle controversy.

Palmeiro admits he takes things too personally, and he overreacted again Friday night after Rangers right-hander Rick Helling threw behind him in the fourth inning of the Orioles' 8-3 loss.

Texas manager Kevin Kennedy spoke with Palmeiro for nearly 10 minutes before last night's game, assuring him that Helling did not throw at him intentionally. Palmeiro said he accepted his former manager's explanation, then did what he should have done the night before -- hit a home run.

It came leading off the seventh inning and broke up a one-hit shutout by one of best friends, Texas left-hander Kenny Rogers. The next inning, he drew a one-out walk from left-hander Rick Honeycutt and scored the go-ahead run on a bases-loaded triple by pinch hitterHarold Baines.

"It felt good because the fans were really booing that time," Palmeiro said of his fourth homer, which came after he struck out in his first two at-bats. "I was really enjoying it. It seemed the longer I ran around the bases, the louder the boos got."

With the hostile crowd silent, maybe now Mount Palmeiro will become dormant as well. From the moment the Rangers signed Will Clark, he has made no secret of his bitterness toward Texas. Granted, Ripken never has experienced the upheaval of changing teams. But try to imagine him reacting the same way.

In an era of big money and bigger mouths, Ripken's secret is that he shuts up and plays. Palmeiro needs to adopt a similar approach, or he'll be dismissed as a whiner and distracted from the task at hand.

The fact is, he was correct to question the Rangers' motives Friday night. Orioles manager Johnny Oates called Helling's pitch "ridiculous," and plate umpire Ken Kaiser said, "it wasn't even debatable . . . there's no place in baseball for that."

The Rangers know Palmeiro better than anyone else. They know he's highly sensitive. They know he's easily frazzled. Palmeiro had homered off Helling the previous Sunday, and hit a ball to the warning track in his first at-bat. Why not try to unnerve him?

Kennedy admitted the Rangers stressed the importance of working Palmeiro inside in pitchers' meetings. Helling said the ball simply got away. Whatever, Palmeiro issued the perfect response last night.

How's this for coincidence? His home run bounced off a banner on the facing of the upper deck in right field, a banner that said, "Rafael, thanks for the memories." Joked Palmeiro: "The one with my name on it. The sign that I bought and put up there."

If only his return to Texas hadn't been marred by Friday night. Palmeiro reserved his strongest words for the Rangers fans who booed him. The fans were the wrong target -- they're football fans, they don't know any better -- and judging from Kennedy's account, maybe the Rangers were blameless, too.

Kennedy reminded Palmeiro of an incident last season against Kansas City. After Palmeiro hit home runs in the first three games of a four-game series, the Royals' Rick Reed plunked him in the knee. Kennedy screamed into the Kansas City dugout, promising to retaliate, and sure enough, the Rangers' Bob Patterson hit Brian McRae the next day.

Seeing as how Kennedy also recommended that the Rangers re-sign Palmeiro, he was taken aback by the first baseman's angry response to Helling. After the game, he asked Jose Canseco to explain to Palmeiro that the Rangers weren't throwing at him. "I hope he believes me," Canseco said yesterday. "But I don't know."

Indeed, minutes before Palmeiro met with Kennedy, he said, "I know who ordered that." Kennedy reportedly was angry that Palmeiro accused the Rangers of purging their Latin players in a national magazine. But he said, "If I've got something to say to somebody, I'll say it to their face, not through a pitcher."

Palmeiro said he was satisfied with Kennedy's version -- "he told me there's no way he would do that, and I believe him." What's more, he was genuinely moved that Kennedy approached him as the Orioles waited to take batting practice. "That shows a lot right there," he said.

The trick now is for Palmeiro to channel his emotions and become an MVP contender. He was 6-for-40 with runners in scoring position after Aug. 3 last season. In past years, he reinvented himself as a home-run hitter and run producer. Now he must take the final step, and become a clutch player.

Palmeiro's ability is such, nothing is beyond his reach. But if he's smart, he'll sit down with Ripken for a little chat. Five months of turmoil is enough. Rafael Palmeiro is too good a player to succumb to controversy, too good a player to bring himself down.

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