Fame to be Palmeiro's fortune?

July 22, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

He has never won a batting, home-run or RBI title. He has never finished in the top five in the Most Valuable Player voting. He has made the All-Star team only three times.

Is Rafael Palmeiro a Hall of Famer?

Not yet.

And maybe not even if he hits 400 homers, an unofficial standard that has virtually guaranteed election to Cooperstown, but might be raised in response to the inflated batting statistics in today's game.

Palmeiro clearly is one of the best hitters of his generation, and he hit his 30th home run last night in the Orioles' 7-1 victory over Oakland. He's batting .299. He's on a 49-homer, 134-RBI pace. He rarely misses games.

This is his fourth straight 30-homer season, and his fifth in the past six years, the exception being the strike year of 1994. He's second in the majors to Ken Griffey in total bases this decade, and Griffey's lead is only two homers and a triple.

So, what about 400 homers, Raffy?

What about the Hall?

"I don't know about that -- that's based on people voting you in," said Palmeiro, who turns 34 in September. "I feel if I stay healthy, I'll do it [hit 400 homers]. I don't see why not. My approach to this game is not going to change."

At first glance, Palmeiro might not fit the classic definition of a Hall of Famer, but each voting member of the Baseball Writers' Association of America uses his own criteria. The belief here is that a player must dominate his era. If he helps his team win in October, all the better.

Palmeiro's total bases alone would indicate that he has dominated his era. But as usual, he is overshadowed by even more prolific slugging first basemen. Mark McGwire. Frank Thomas. Andres Galarraga. And, to an extent, Mo Vaughn.

As for October, well, Palmeiro has played in 1,720 major-league games without appearing in a World Series. A big postseason or two, capped off by a world championship, certainly would enhance his chances for Cooperstown.

"He can't quit now and make the Hall of Fame, but he's well on his way," Brady Anderson said. "Regardless of whether he's a Hall of Famer or not, when you finish with 400-plus homers, you're one of the truly great players. And he is. He has been one of the truly great hitters the last 10 years."

The question now is, will the standards change? Dave Kingman is the only player with 400 homers who has not been elected to the Hall, and Andre Dawson and Darrell Evans are borderline. But with so many active players closing in on that milestone, voters eventually might raise the bar to 450, or even 500.

Anderson frowns at that suggestion.

"Why are [the numbers] inflated?" he asked. "We have better players than ever. Those arguments are kind of silly. They don't take everything into consideration. The major-league talent pool comes from basically every country in the world now."

And hitters everywhere are going deep. McGwire hit his 400th homer earlier this season. Barry Bonds is six short of that total, Cal Ripken 22, Jose Canseco 23. The first three are first-ballot Hall of Famers, but Canseco? He blew his chance for a magnificent career.

Fred McGriff has 348 homers, Harold Baines 344; neither is likely to reach 400. But Griffey (334), Galarraga (318), Albert Belle (302), Matt Williams (293), Juan Gonzalez (285) and Thomas (274) all are within striking distance.

Of that group, it would be difficult to justify Williams as a Hall of Famer. Belle's demeanor likely would be an issue with the BBWAA, and Galarraga might suffer for playing five seasons at Coors Field.

Smaller ballparks, expansion pitching, perhaps even a livelier ball -- these are but some of the factors contributing to the greatest offensive surge in the sport's history. And don't forget weight training and nutritional supplements.

The only way to effectively measure players is by comparing them to their peers. Palmeiro is one of the game's most underrated players. His low profile hurts him in the All-Star voting. Presumably, it also would cost him in the Hall of Fame balloting.

"The knock on him is that he's so graceful, he doesn't look like he's trying," Eric Davis said. "You never see him swing and fall fTC down. He's never off-balance. He's so graceful, a lot of people over the years have thought he's not being aggressive, or being lazy. But he's as aggressive as they come."

Davis, a 15-year veteran, described Palmeiro as the best first baseman and best RBI man he has ever played with. Palmeiro won his first Gold Glove last season. He ranks among the top five in the majors in games, doubles, hits and runs this decade. His career batting average is .294.

The best way for him to make his case is to do exactly what he is doing, keep putting up monster numbers year after year. At his present pace, he will finish the season with 320 homers. Four more seasons of 30, and he would approach 450 -- a big, big number.

Big enough for the Hall of Fame? Maybe not the way the game is evolving. But at the very least, Rafael Palmeiro will merit consideration. At the end of a career, a player can't ask for anything more.

Pub Date: 7/22/98

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