Palmeiro eyes bigger, better stats

March 06, 1997|By John Eisenberg

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Rafael Palmeiro sat at his home in Texas this winter and watched the Orioles maneuver to lessen the power in their lineup while they enhanced their pitching, defense and chemistry.

"I agreed with their thinking and what they were doing," Palmeiro said yesterday, before the Orioles played the Mets on a warm afternoon at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. "We were too one-dimensional last year."

Without Bobby Bonilla, Eddie Murray and Todd Zeile, all set free to depart via free agency, the Orioles probably won't come close to breaking their major-league record of 257 home runs in a season, set last year. But someone still has to hit some home runs if the Orioles are going to contend in 1997. Who better than Palmeiro, who hit 39 homers last season and leads the club with 101 in the past three seasons?

"I hope it depends on me," Palmeiro said, "because if it depends on me, then we're going to be OK. Because I had good numbers last year, but I can do better. I can do more for this team in every aspect at the plate."

That's quite a statement from a player who not only equaled his career high in home runs last season, but also set a club record with 142 RBIs.

What's his definition of "more," 60 homers and 200 RBIs?

Palmeiro, seemingly in a serious mood this spring, didn't smile at the suggestion.

"I don't know. I just know that I wasn't happy with the way things ended last season," he said.

That's the root of his discontent. He tired near the end of his brilliant 1996 season, he said, and didn't produce as much as he could have in the playoffs.

"I just got worn down a little, and I didn't like that," he said. "I want to stay strong this year."

To do his best to make sure that happens, Palmeiro, 32, embarked on the most serious off-season training regimen of his career. Lifting weights and dieting right, he gained 8 pounds of muscle in his upper body.

fTC He's not as buffed as Chris Hoiles, Brady Anderson or Pete Incaviglia, the Orioles' resident strongmen, but he is noticeably stronger.

"I train every off-season, but this year I used a different trainer with a different philosophy," he said. "It was a better workout. Man, I worked hard."

As he did, he used as motivation the memory of three specific balls that he hit against the Yankees in the American League Championship Series.

"Two against Andy Pettitte [in Game 1 and Game 5] and one against Kenny Rogers [in Game 4], all long fly balls that got caught at the fence," Palmeiro said.

They all would have been home runs, he said, with just a little more oomph behind them.

"And that could have made the difference in the series," Palmeiro said. "I thought about that all winter."

Changing anything about his game is a risk, of course, considering how well and consistently he has produced in his three seasons as an Oriole. Besides his 101 homers, he has hit .304 with 322 RBIs and 207 extra-base hits. With two years left on his contract, he is the definition of a successful free-agent signing.

But while it is true that some players have struggled after changing their bodies and tinkering with a successful formula, Palmeiro surely won't. He is a natural, able to hit in any circumstances; with more or less weight, in hot or cold weather, on an ice rink, et cetera.

"I'm just trying to get better and do more for the team," he said.

He also wouldn't mind checking off a few personal goals along the way. It rankles him that he hasn't made the American League All-Star team since 1991, despite his big numbers. It's tough being in the same league with Frank Thomas and Cecil Fielder.

But Palmeiro is sensitive to the old criticism that he cares more about himself than his team, so he isn't eager to talk about his personal goals.

"There are clearly some things that I would like to do," he said. "But all of the personal goals pale next to the team goal of making it to the World Series."

Spoken like a player who played in his first postseason game last autumn and realized what he had been missing all these years.

"The playoffs were an incredible experience," he said. "We had a crazy year, but we came pretty close [to the World Series] in the end. I want to get back there. That's why I worked so hard in the off-season. Because I can make a difference for this team. We have a good team with championship-type players. We can get there. And I'm responsible for a lot that goes on. That's the way I like it. And I just want to make sure I do all that I can."

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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