Palmeiro patience is O's virtue He eyes reverse swing, returning walks, hits to all fields to arsenal

March 16, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- Numbers don't lie unless they're talking to Rafael Palmeiro. Most see 38 home runs and 110 RBIs and believe it a career year. Palmeiro looks at the same numbers and sees six months of frustration.

Palmeiro provided further meaning yesterday to a promise that he would re- dedicate himself this year to becoming the complete hitter of 1996 rather than the pull-conscious, overly indulgent numbers cruncher who grinded to a hurtful 1997. In four plate appearances yesterday in a 5-2 victory over the New York Mets, he hinted at how far he has come. Palmeiro homered and singled off Mets left-hander Brian Bohanon. Later he accepted his seventh walk in 35 plate appearances. The Orioles celebrated quietly.

A rhythmic, natural hitter, Palmeiro is again concentrating on patience and hitting to all fields, two qualities he misplaced during last season when he hit a career-low .254 with a career-high 109 strikeouts.

"I got away from that last year a little bit. Actually, I got away from it a lot," he says.

Against Bohanon, Palmeiro showed the benefit of his expanded approach, something that has made him a .294 lifetime hitter despite last season's funk. Looking to drive a fastball to left field during his second at-bat, Palmeiro was able to wait on a breaking pitch that hung inside.

Last year Palmeiro probably would have pulled off the pitch, grounding weakly to first base, missing the pitch entirely or hooking it foul. By refusing to prematurely open his shoulders yesterday, Palmeiro used his hands to whip the ball fair into the right-field foul pole for a three-run homer.

"I was coming off the ball last year. But as long as I have the approach I have right now, I'll stay on the ball long enough," he says.

Palmeiro, 33, has become more receptive to the advice of hitting coach Rick Down, who grew frustrated with the hitter's compulsion with power last season.

After a slow start, Palmeiro became more fixated on pulling the ball. The loss of Eric Davis and Chris Hoiles to injuries only magnified his self-imposed pressure.

"He's a beautiful hitter and that's a rare description," says Down. "Last year, he tried to be more than Rafael Palmeiro. But just being Rafael Palmeiro is plenty enough."

Palmeiro became inconsolable after the Orioles' elimination from last year's American League Championship Series. His failures with men on base serve as a leading cause of a collective brownout that resulted in four one-run losses to Cleveland. It also made him more open to advice.

Miller says it will be easy to track his progress. Palmeiro accepted 67 walks last season, 28 fewer than the year before when he hit .289 with 142 RBIs. Miller has challenged him to take 100 walks this season. The rest, he says, will follow.

"To his credit, Raffy's really working on it. He's a great hitter. If he's more patient, he can put up Ruthian numbers in home runs and average. There's no end to what he can do," Miller says, noting the addition of Joe Carter and a healthy Davis as sources of protection for the first baseman.

"You're talking about 25 or 30 more positive at-bats during a season. That means a big swing in his average.

"When you don't swing at that bad pitch and the pitcher gets behind, the guy hitting behind you becomes very important. When you do swing at bad pitches and you get behind, it doesn't matter who's hitting behind you."

A dangerous Palmeiro would reinvigorate an offense that became sluggish, predictable and ultimately ineffective last season. Unfortunately, the same descriptions hung to a player who has driven in 100 runs in the last four complete seasons.

"It starts now," he says. "I need to stay with it the whole way through. No matter what happens with the team, no matter what happens with the other players, I've got to stay with my approach. I can't get away from that."

Challenged not only by pride but by his pending free agency, Palmeiro promises the league will pay for last year.

"I will just by being more selective and not being anxious. If they want to pitch around me, that's fine. We've got enough power in the lineup; they're not going to be able to go around me too much," he says. "If I don't get myself out like last year, I'll be all right. If I can eliminate some of that, I'll hit .300, have more walks and score more runs."

Some within the organization insist Palmeiro can recite his batting average while standing at first base in the middle of a game. Others believe what is sometimes perceived as selfishness is actually an intense desire to shoulder his load.

Last season, Palmeiro's body language betrayed him as a brooding star. That attitude -- which he never denied -- has lifted noticeably this spring.

"I'm not locked in yet. But I feel good. I'd like to feel this all year. I would take that," he says. "But you can always work to get that perfect moment. When I get to that point, I know I'll be locked in. I want to get there and try to stay there."

Pub Date: 3/16/98

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