Palmeiro wastes no time making himself at home

He defends move to Texas, revisits flag court with HR

May 22, 1999|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

He sat in the visitors' dugout at Camden Yards, defending once more his decision to sign with the Texas Rangers and wondering what kind of reception he'd get from a crowd that used to cheer his every heroic move.

Rafael Palmeiro was back in Baltimore last night for the first time since spurning the Orioles' five-year, $50 million offer for the chance to return to his home state. Unable to play first base because of two arthroscopic surgeries on his right knee this spring, Palmeiro has been serving as designated hitter and a constant reminder of what the Orioles once had in their possession.

"This is weird," he said. "Coming in and sitting on this side of the stadium, it's definitely weird."

What Palmeiro did in his first at-bat sure looked familiar. Given a mixed greeting as he stepped to the plate in the second inning, Palmeiro lined the first pitch from Sidney Ponson over the scoreboard in right. It was his fourth homer in the last three games, and it brought a standing ovation.

Just business as usual for Palmeiro, who ranks among the AL leaders in average (.373), home runs (12) and RBIs (37). Imagine what he could do if healthy.

"My swing feels good. I'm seeing the ball well," he said before going 1-for-4 in the Rangers' 3-2 loss. "Maybe it's because of my knee. I can't put all my force on my front knee when I hit and maybe it's allowing me to stay back longer."

After the game, the man who hit 182 homers and drove in 553 runs in five years as an Oriole appreciated the fans' response to his Rangers blow.

"It made me feel good. For those who cheered, I want to thank them because they supported me through the years. And for those who booed, I want to thank them, too, because they cheered for me -- believe it or not -- when I was here, so it's just the way the game is."

Before the game, he reminisced about the fans.

"My very first game they gave me a standing ovation. The fans always treated me well. They voted for me for the All-Star games and they did everything for me. I could not ask for anything more and I was very appreciative. There's no animosity. My time here was awesome. It was just time for me to move on."

Even if it meant taking less money. The Orioles eventually met his contract demands, only to have Palmeiro call the Rangers again and later agree to a five-year, $45 million deal with no deferred money. Also making their offer more attractive was the lack of state income tax in Texas.

"A lot happened," he said. "Baseball is baseball. It's a business and sometimes it gets ugly, but I don't see this as being ugly. I made a decision that I'm proud of. I'm happy that I'm at home with my family and I'm playing with a good team. I'm happy with what I did."

Orioles manager Ray Miller lobbied for Palmeiro's return and believed enough concessions had been made to retain him.

"It was uncomfortable last year because I was doing my best to get ownership to get him under [contract] and raise some demands and all that, and then he signs somewhere else and it kind of leaves you strung out a little bit. But that's part of the game. You can't hold that personally against him," Miller said.

Palmeiro said "a combination of a lot of things" led to his decision to sign with the Rangers.

"I think I made it clear to everyone I wanted to stay," he said. "With the way we struggled, I don't think they knew which direction the team was going to go in. We heard they were going to get some of the young guys up here and rebuild that way. There were a lot of uncertainties and I was out in limbo.

"I don't think it should have gotten to that point because I really wanted to stay. But I had to look out for myself.

"They had the opportunity to sign me for nine months, since the beginning of spring training. I don't think I was unfair by what I was asking for. I tried to stay, they made very little effort to keep me. Things heated up with Texas and that's when they became more aggressive, but it was too late."

Remember me?

In five games against his former mates in May, Rafael Palmeiro has scorched Orioles pitching for a .444 average and three home runs.

D H-AB BI Skinny

5/13 2-2* 1 Walked 3 times, scored 4 runs

5/14 2-4 2 Go-ahead 2-run double in 7th

5/15 2-4* 3 Winning 3-run homer in 6th

5/16 1-4 0 Watched O's score 16 runs

5/21 1-4* 1 Homer in 2nd lone run until 7th

*-Includes a home run

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