Palmeiro paying off for Rangers

July 07, 1999|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Two big-name free agents went head-to-head last week in Southern California.

The $80 million guy, limping with a bad ankle, went 0-for-8 with five strikeouts. The $45 million guy, limping with a bad knee, went 9-for-13 with a home run, four runs scored and six runs batted in. His team won all three games and is in first place, and he has yet to lead a mutiny against his manager.

Score it a clear knockout for Rafael Palmeiro over Mo Vaughn and further indication the Rangers might have landed a bargain when they signed Palmeiro to a five-year, $45 million contract in the off-season.

There have also been clear indications, halfway through the 1999 season, that Palmeiro is not the same hitter, or player, the Rangers let get away five years ago.

When Palmeiro left the Rangers to sign with Baltimore after the 1993 season, he was still in transition as a hitter, trying to go from a high-average guy who could compete for a batting title to a middle-of-the-lineup, home run and RBI guy.

He was also a player who still let his emotions get to him, as he did the night the Rangers announced they had signed Will Clark to play first base when both Clark and Palmeiro were free agents.

The first sign of a changed man came in the off-season when Palmeiro took control of his contract situation and got something done quickly with the Rangers. Then he took the field and showed the transition as a hitter is complete.

In fact, the numbers show he might be the best all-around hitter going in the American League right now.

Palmeiro went into last night's game hitting .353 with 20 home runs and 73 RBIs, which put him in the AL top 10 in all three categories.

"So far everything has gone better than expected," said Palmeiro, who stands an excellent chance of being selected to the American League All-Star team today.

But Palmeiro's value goes far beyond mathematics. Rangers manager Johnny Oates was reminded of that during the final game against the Anaheim Angels, an 18-4 victory for the Rangers.

"I took him out that game in the sixth inning and I look up, he's still on the bench, cheering for his teammates," Oates said. "I gave him the opportunity to shower early because we were leaving right after the game and he said, no, I want to stay here with these guys.

"The guys who were in there, who don't play much, don't think they don't appreciate Raffy sitting there on the top step cheering them on."

Outfielder Rusty Greer sees something else.

"Besides all the offense, he's shown that he goes out there every day and plays in pain," Greer said. "That's part of leadership. There were times he could have taken days off but he didn't, even with the knee hurting. That goes a long way with your teammates."

Palmeiro has come a long way in that regard. The toughness, the leadership and the hot start have helped dispel some "myths" about Palmeiro. He has heard them before: that he was not a leader, that he was selfish, he was only concerned about his numbers and didn't care about the rest of the team.

"I don't know where that all got started," Palmeiro said, shaking his head. "It's unfair. That's not what I'm about. But you can't please everybody.

"Reporters started saying the only thing I care about is my numbers, but I want you to name me one player in baseball who doesn't think about his numbers. Everybody does to some degree. But I think the more people watch me play, the more they understand who I am and what I'm about."

Such myths -- fair or not -- cost Palmeiro money. Over the past five years, Vaughn has hit .319 with 184 home runs and 562 RBIs; Palmeiro has hit .292 with 182 homers and 553 RBIs. Palmeiro, a two-time Gold Glove winner, is a much better defensive player and clearly seems in better shape.

Yet Vaughn was the one who got the much bigger contract during the off-season because of his perceived clubhouse presence. The Angels thought that would make a difference. Instead, Vaughn was reported as the leader of a rebellious group of Angels players that went complaining to general manager Bill Bavasi about manager Terry Collins.

"The thing with Raffy is he doesn't try to be somebody else," Rangers general manager Doug Melvin said. "He's a quiet leader, but the players have a lot of respect for him. Johnny's known him for a long time; he managed him in Baltimore, and he knew what kind of guy he is."

Vaughn laments that his ankle injury has limited his production and made for a frustrating season. Vaughn, who spent two weeks on the disabled list in April, entered last night's Angels game hitting .285 with 16 homers and 53 RBIs. His team is in last place in the AL West.

"I'm not out there in the fray," Vaughn said. "That's what bothers me. No one here has ever seen me play at full strength. I'm a different person. I'm a different player."

But Palmeiro's return to Texas, as well as it has gone, has not been without setbacks.

Palmeiro signed with the Rangers expecting to bat third and play first base. Instead, Oates decided to bat him fifth, and two operations on his right knee have limited him mostly to the role of designated hitter duty.

He hasn't let either affect his performance.

"In the past it might have bothered me," Palmeiro admitted. "But not now. The thing about DH, I have to accept it no matter what because the knee hasn't responded as well as I would have liked. The fifth position, I knew it wouldn't be a problem. My job is to produce runs, and in this lineup, third, fourth, fifth or even sixth, it's an RBI position."

The RBIs have come. So has the average, the home runs and the leadership, all combining to help push the Rangers into first place in the American League West. With each passing day it's becoming more obvious.

Palmeiro is everything the Angels ever expected from Vaughn.

Pub Date: 7/07/99

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