Decade is one sweet swing for Palmeiro

Sidelight

Ex-Oriole does a number, exceeding likes of Gwynn

July 29, 1999|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Rafael Palmeiro didn't have the words to describe the grand season he's having for the Texas Rangers, but his manager did.

"Unbelievable," Johnny Oates said.

At 34, Palmeiro is enjoying one of his best seasons at the plate and cementing his status as one of the most consistent players the major leagues have seen this decade. After five seasons with the Orioles, he's ending the decade where he began it, steadying the best start the Texas franchise has ever enjoyed.

"He's the most consistent offensive player we've had," Oates said. "He's going to hit 40 home runs, drive in 130. He's going to play every day."

Palmeiro has missed only two games this season, once to rest an ailing hamstring and once because Randy Johnson was the opposing pitcher. Oates said that the first baseman/designated hitter is just doing what he's always done, but even Palmeiro, his own worst critic, is a bit taken aback by the fashion in which his career accomplishments have come into focus this year.

Palmeiro -- and not Cal Ripken -- has played in more games in the 1990s, 1,465. That doesn't carry as much personal significance, however, as the 1,686 hits he's compiled in the decade, another unsurpassed total.

"That's a strange thing, because he's been there every day for 17, 18 years," Palmeiro said of playing more games in the '90s than Ripken. "It's unfortunate that he had to be put on the disabled list [this season]. I've been lucky that I really haven't had anything serious that would sideline me for a few weeks. I've played through injuries, slumps, everything."

And of having more hits in the '90s than Tony Gwynn et al?

"Now that's a little bit different," Palmeiro said. "That's showing I've been consistent, out there doing my job."

Palmeiro is hitting .346, 24 points higher than the career best he posted for the Rangers in 1991. Only Derek Jeter, Tony Fernandez and Nomar Garciaparra have higher averages in the American League. Palmeiro is sixth in RBIs (84), and third in on-base percentage (.437).

He's been particularly hard on his former teammates. Before going 1-5 Tuesday and 0-for-3 last night, Palmeiro had a league-best .480 average against the Orioles. Remember all that talk that his numbers would suffer when he left the cozy alignment of Camden Yards? He's the league's second-best hitter on the road.

"I didn't buy into that," Palmeiro said of the theory that Camden Yards feeds power numbers. "This is a hitter's park, but you still have to go up there and hit the ball. It doesn't matter where you play. If you do well, you're going to do well anywhere."

This was the Rangers' second series in Baltimore since Palmeiro abruptly turned his back on negotiations with the Orioles and signed with Texas last December. Asked about the state of the Orioles, he had no opinions, other than to say that he hears the numerous cheers for him, and the fewer who are rooting against him.

"It's a little bit easier this time, but it's still hard coming back to a place where you played so long," Palmeiro said. "It's hard to play against a team you were with that long."

Palmeiro underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in February and again in March, and said he didn't attack his strenuous off-season conditioning program any harder than usual.

His lifestyle, in fact, has become easier, since he's made his home in Texas since 1989. He's at the core of a dangerous batting order, on a club that's a lock to make the AL playoffs, and he didn't sound interested in analyzing the importance of any of those factors in his remarkable campaign."

"I haven't done anything different," Palmeiro said. "It's just one of those things. I'm a good hitter. I'm doing things right."

Just like he has throughout the '90s.

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