O's Palmeiro connects with all but front office Despite '98 'leverage,' he still lacks '99 offer

July 21, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Four days have lapsed since Rafael Palmeiro smacked his 300th career home run and the 29th of a career season. Only two players in the American League have hit more home runs, and one of them -- Ken Griffey -- is placed in the company of Maris and Ruth. As for Palmeiro, he sits and waits for when he might be mentioned in the company of the 1999 Baltimore Orioles.

Palmeiro starts his 100th game tonight. He enters with a .297 average and 80 RBIs to go with a home run pace that projects to 47 for the season. He has constructed the most productive five-year span of any player in Orioles history.

He's also one of the Orioles' 11 pending free agents and remains the focus of persistent trade speculation.

Diplomatic on the subject for much of the season, Palmeiro now admits he is confused and disappointed by the silence emanating from the B&O warehouse. It is assumed the club will re-sign pending free-agent left fielder B. J. Surhoff. It is also assumed that Palmeiro and second baseman Roberto Alomar will be among those playing elsewhere next year.

"I felt coming into this year I had something to prove and I think I've done that," says Palmeiro. "I feel like I have more leverage now than at the beginning of the season."

In January Palmeiro predicted the Orioles would not re-sign him if a deal wasn't done by the start of the season. Numbers were never exchanged, though Palmeiro, 33, pushed for a five-year deal in the $50 million neighborhood. He has since sent conciliatory indicators to a club shocked by his public remarks.

Regarding his prediction, Palmeiro says only, "I'm right so far."

Palmeiro's departure from the Texas Rangers after the '93 season still leaves him bruised. Palmeiro and his wife, Lynne, built their dream home north of Dallas in anticipation of becoming a franchise player. When Palmeiro became available for free agency, however, the Rangers offered him less money and less years than they eventually gave Will Clark, Palmeiro's rival dating back to their collegiate careers at Mississippi State.

Palmeiro has been gleeful in punishing the Rangers ever since. His nine home runs at The Ballpark in Arlington are tied for the most by any visiting player. Meanwhile, Clark's career is in steep decline.

Now in Baltimore, another place he says he would prefer to stay, Palmeiro detects similar signals. Four times since spring training club officials have told him and agent Jim Bronner that negotiations with majority owner Peter Angelos were near. Palmeiro still waits.

Meanwhile, he and Roberto Alomar were mentioned prominently trade talks with the New York Mets. In what must seem like a parallel universe, the Boston Red Sox offered their pending free-agent first baseman, Mo Vaughn, a four-year, $37 million extension, a deal Vaughn declined.

"I've thought about why there hasn't been any attempts [to sign me]," says Palmeiro, who has 34 RBIs in his last 35 games. "When I see Mo Vaughn's situation with the Red Sox, they're obviously trying to sign him. But that's the way our team chose to approach it. I don't have a problem with it. I've never given them any deadlines. All I've ever wanted was to know whether they wanted to sign me or wanted to wait. I've never gotten that answer."

Today's organizational meeting among Angelos, his front office and manager Ray Miller might provide a sliver of a clue. Already, general manager Pat Gillick has joined a consensus that the Orioles should retain their raft of free agents in the hope of miraculously securing a wild-card berth. The longer he stays, the more Palmeiro believes his numbers justify his January claim that he wouldn't accept below-market value to remain.

"Things are going to work out for me regardless in the end. I feel like I'm a good player. I'm a productive player and I can help any team. I want to help this team. This is where I want to be. But I can't force them to make decisions."

Palmeiro knows his numbers were smudged last October. Presented a national stage to enhance his visibility and perhaps change a reputation that his numbers offer more quantity than quality, Palmeiro collapsed. He was the Orioles' only starting position player without an RBI in the four-game Division Series win over the Seattle Mariners, then repeatedly failed in pivotal situations during a wrenching, six-game loss to the Cleveland Indians in the AL Championship Series. Palmeiro returned to his Dallas home and contemplated the postseason for weeks.

The final image of a playoff gone wrong was Palmeiro looking into the home dugout at manager Davey Johnson in disbelief as Jeffrey Hammonds was sent in to run for him in Game 6. Palmeiro was booed from the field.

The experience still hurts. But Palmeiro believes his role as poster boy for a devastating loss unfair.

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