Ring's the thing for star-struck Palmeiro

February 24, 1996|By John Eisenberg

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Rafael Palmeiro walked down the row of lockers in the Orioles' clubhouse, past Robbie Alomar, Bobby Bonilla, Cal Ripken and Randy Myers.

He reached his own locker, stopped and shook his head.

"Awesome," he said, nodding over his shoulder at the line of players getting dressed for a morning workout. "That is awesome."

Pulling a practice jersey over his head, he borrowed a phrase from Magic Johnson: "It's winning time, isn't it?"

The comment was more than a little significant coming from Palmeiro, the Orioles' first baseman. Openly concerned for years with getting the respect and support he felt was slow coming to him, Palmeiro is thinking "we," not "me," this year. How can he not?

"There aren't many years when you can say in the spring that you have a legitimate chance to win it all, and you know it's true," Palmeiro said. "I've been on some good teams, but never one with talent like this.

"It's time to go get a ring this year."

Of course, no player stands to benefit more individually than Palmeiro, who will have Alomar batting in front of him and Bonilla behind him, a potent sandwich that assures Palmeiro of more opportunities and more sweet pitches than he had last year.

Not that he needs much help. He had 39 home runs and 104 RBIs last season, batting in between a far less potent sandwich of Bret Barberie and Manny Alexander in front and Harold Baines and Ripken in back.

At age 31, in the prime of his career, Palmeiro would appear to be in line for a monster season.

Yet he downplays such talk, which he believes runs contrary to what '96 is all about in Baltimore.

"This team is so good that no one has to go out and have a great year," he said. "We don't need any career years. We just need guys to go out and do what they usually do. If we all just meet our career averages, we'll be fine. We'll win a lot of games."

Such talk suggests Palmeiro finally is moving past the snub he felt when the Texas Rangers signed Will Clark to replace him when both were free agents in 1993.

A former teammate and rival of Clark's, Palmeiro was emotionally shattered despite signing a $27 million contract with the Orioles. He all but pleaded with Orioles fans to embrace him, his insecurity as obvious as one of his home runs.

Two seasons, 254 games, 311 hits, 62 home runs and 180 RBIs later, he doesn't need to plead for anything.

Nor does he need to worry about what might have been with the Rangers, who, as ownership pinches pennies, are still the portrait of mediocrity they have been since moving from Washington 25 years ago.

"It has worked out for the best, no question about it," Palmeiro said. "I'm in the right place; it was meant to be. I'm on a better team, in a city that loves baseball, under ownership committed to winning."

Not that life has been so grand at Camden Yards. His fine performance in '95 was all but lost in the Orioles' high-priced shortfall.

"I hate to say it, but last year wasn't fun," he said. "I always have fun playing ball. But it was difficult to enjoy having a good season personally when the team was losing. That was no fun."

What was wrong with the club last season?

"I'm still not sure," he said. "We should have been better. We fell short. We had some holes. I think we've filled them. There's a sense of confidence this year that was missing last year. We didn't know if we were as good as everyone thought last year. This year, we know we're that good. This year, with this group of players, we know it's just a matter of time."

If personal achievements drift his way in the process, he won't turn them down. He has played in the All-Star Game only twice despite some huge numbers. Clearly, he would relish the chance.

"I would love to go if I deserve to," he said. "I would really love to go and start next to Robbie and Cal. It could happen. I need to get some votes. I feel like I've put up the right kinds of numbers the last few years. But it's hard to make it at my position."

Either way, Palmeiro has his eyes trained on a different goal this season.

A goal he shares with everyone else in the clubhouse.

"Just because we look good on paper doesn't mean we're automatically going to win," Palmeiro said. "We still have to go out and do it. That's never easy. But it's there if we want to take it."

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