Palmeiro's burning desire sparked by fiery father Dad's daily demands on diamond bore gem

March 30, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Their father would yell at them and tell them, in no uncertain terms, how they were failing as baseball players, and Rick and Andre Palmeiro never liked that.

But their brother Rafael would listen and separate the message -- you've got to work harder, you've got to keep your focus -- from the critical delivery. Rafael Palmeiro wanted to be a big-league ballplayer, from the time he started playing at 9 years old, and his father Jose wanted to help him, in the best way he knew.

The negative feedback did help, Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro says now, at the age of 31. He has become one of the best offensive players in baseball, coming off a year when he hit 39 homers, drove in 104 runs and batted .310, going into a season when, with Roberto Alomar hitting in front of him, he could do even more damage.

Jose Palmeiro lives 15 minutes from the area in Miami where he and Maria Palmeiro raised their sons. Mother and father reside in the house Rafael bought for them, a dividend of thousands of hours of practicing on softball diamonds and baseball fields with patches of grass.

Five or six days a week -- "Just about every day," Rick Palmeiro remembers -- Jose Palmeiro would return home from his construction job and take his boys out to practice baseball. They would plop a glove down on the ground for home plate, and for 90 minutes or two hours, they would take batting practice and field grounders, with Jose Palmeiro pushing the youngsters to play better.

"He'd find ways to get me going, things to get me motivated," Rafael said. "There were times he did it in a negative way. He used negative criticism in a way, at times, that would get me to wake up and push myself harder.

"He always made me feel like I wasn't a very good player, and that I needed to work harder. That's how he worked on my head, so I would always work harder and never be satisfied with myself."

Rafael began telling his family at an early age that he would play in the majors. "I laughed at him," Rick said. "I didn't take him that seriously, saying that."

But he was serious. Palmeiro would watch the Atlanta Braves on TV everyday, a practice his brothers found to be overwhelmingly boring. Rick much preferred tinkering with electronic gadgets.

Rafael came to thrive on the daily workouts with their father. He would wait eagerly for Jose Palmeiro to come home; his brothers, on the other hand, didn't like it that much, and Rick argued with his father over technique.

"There were times my Dad had to drag them out there," Palmeiro said, "because they didn't want to go. I always wanted to go. I was always ready when he got there. There were times my Dad had to argue with them, say hey, let's get going, because they didn't want to go. Not everybody enjoys the game like I did."

He would listen to his father's criticism, separate the message from the delivery, and he came to understand why his father pushed him so hard.

"It's really a good thing, as long as you understand [why]," Palmeiro said. "I would've liked him to say, you have a chance if you really work hard. You're a good player. I never heard it from him. But it was never his way. . . . If I went 3-for-4 and struck out, he wouldn't comment on the three hits. He would criticize the strikeout.

"Sometimes negative criticism doesn't work. It did with me, because I understood what he was trying to do. I wouldn't use the same approach with my son if he decided he wanted to play baseball. I know the affect it had on me, and at times, it was hard. He knew I wanted to be a ballplayer, and he was helping me in every way he could."

It was the way Jose Palmeiro knew. His grandfather, Rafael thinks, was more strict with Jose Palmeiro than Jose was with his sons. Jose Palmeiro grew up in Cuba, and his father was a big boxing fan, and wanted his son to be a boxer. Playing baseball was forbidden.

But Jose Palmeiro, who was unavailable for this story, found a way to learn the game, and as a young man, played very competitive amateur ball. The fact that he was forbidden from playing baseball, Rafael thinks now, could be why his father wanted his sons to take the game seriously.

In 1963, the year before Rafael was born in Havana and four years after Fidel Castro assumed power in Cuba, Jose Palmeiro asked for permission to move to the United States. But the relationship between the two countries was at a low ebb, and he waited eight more years before getting permission.

Once in Miami, Rafael remembers, Jose Palmeiro worked very hard to make a living for his family. "He's had a hard life," Rafael says. "When the Cubans shot down those two planes [in February], he and I talked about things he went through back in Cuba."

One story Jose related to his son was how a neighborhood committee organized a Communist Party meeting, and he was told that those absent would be hanged. Jose Palmeiro didn't go. "He speaks his mind," said Rafael Palmeiro. "He's a very proud man."

A proud man who wanted success for his sons, and pushed them in that direction. "When you get to high school and your mind starts drifting, it helps," Rafael Palmeiro said. "A lot of my friends in high school were as talented, some even more talented, and they didn't have a Dad like I did who stayed on it and really focused on teaching me the right way, and guide me at the right time."

Jose Palmeiro praises his son occasionally, now that he's an established star. But, Rafael said, "It's not necessary for him to say that. I know he feels it.

"I would do it for my son. I want him to know I feel that way, I want him to understand that I'm proud of him. I don't expect that from my Dad. I grew up different than my son is going to grow up."

Orioles today

Opponent: Philadelphia Phillies

Site: Oriole Park

Time: 1: 35 p.m.

TV/Radio: HTS/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Phillies' Terry Mulholland vs. Orioles' Scott Erickson.

Tickets: Many available.

Pub Date: 3/30/96

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