It's official: Palmeiro an Oriole again

Guaranteed $4.5M deal returns slugger to city of his `best five years'

Team echoes ex-Ranger's delight

Everyday first-base role icing on cake for veteran

January 14, 2004|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

The chance to return home pulled Rafael Palmeiro away from Baltimore six years ago. Memories of the five seasons he spent with the Orioles, the last coming in 1998, have brought him back to Camden Yards.

"I never thought this opportunity would open up again," he said.

"I know what it's like to play here. I keep saying those were the best five years of my career."

The Orioles gladly will take his nostalgia, as long as it's attached to the same, smooth swing.

Palmeiro, 39, officially rejoined the organization yesterday after passing his physical. He met with the local media and slipped on an Orioles cap, but no jersey was modeled until he decides on a number.

Palmeiro, who batted .260 with 38 homers and 112 RBIs last season with the Texas Rangers, has worn No. 25 during his entire major league career. He's gotten pretty attached to it, but he'll have to work out a deal with Jay Gibbons to get it back.

It might come at a price.

"I'm sure I'm going to have to negotiate a little bit," Palmeiro said.

His latest contract guarantees him $4.5 million. Palmeiro will receive $4 million this season, and a $4.5 million option in 2005 includes a $500,000 buyout. He can earn another $1 million per year in performance bonuses.

The Orioles advanced to the American League Championship Series in 1996 and 1997 with Palmeiro in their lineup, but they haven't finished higher than fourth place since he left. He also was with the team in 1995 when Cal Ripken broke Lou Gehrig's consecutive-games record - giving him a push in front of the dugout that began the Iron Man's memorable lap around the field.

"I'm going to be playing a little bit of a different role this time," he said. "I'm a little bit older, a little bit wiser. It's a lot younger team, so I'm sure I'm going to be asked to be one of the leaders, which I'll do, anyway. That's just part of who I am, who I've evolved into.

"I want to play, I want to have fun, and I want to win again. I know what those days were like back here. I'd like to have that taste in my mouth again."

After returning to the Rangers, Palmeiro said he spent a few weeks wondering if he'd made a mistake. He wants to retire as an Oriole and said that, if elected, he'll go into the Hall of Fame wearing their cap, which brought applause from team executives Jim Beattie and Mike Flanagan.

"Walking in today again as an Oriole brought back a lot of great memories," he said. "I'm looking forward to this new chapter in my career. I'm here to play for a long time."

In 2003, Palmeiro became the 19th player in major league history to reach the 500-homer plateau. He's the only player to hit 38 or more homers in nine straight seasons, and has appeared in 154 or more games every year since 1996.

With the Orioles, he missed only six games in five seasons. He made the All-Star team twice, and was named Most Valuable Oriole on three occasions.

"What Raffy brings to our table is that consistency that we were looking for, both offensively and defensively," Flanagan said. "I think the numbers speak for themselves as far as the production - RBIs unmatched, unparalleled and Ripken-like consistency.

"We want Raffy to be our everyday first baseman, not only for this year but for years to come, so we couldn't be happier at this moment to add another significant new member to the Orioles' lineup and certainly one who enters right in the middle of ours. It's a very happy day here in Baltimore for us."

It's good news for Palmeiro, a three-time Gold Glove winner who is 220 hits shy of 3,000, to hear that he's a regular first baseman again. Needing to find a spot for rookie Mark Teixeira last season, the Rangers used Palmeiro as the designated hitter in 96 games and at first in only 55.

"I've got a lot more to offer than just swinging a bat," said Palmeiro, who hit 182 of his 528 career homers with the Orioles after leaving the Rangers as a free agent. "What happened in Texas was, the team was going in a different direction with young players and I was asked to DH as part of the plan."

Being removed from the field brought speculation that Palmeiro's knees couldn't hold up to everyday duty at first base.

"I can assure you that I'm in as good of shape as I've ever been in," he said. "You look at my track record. I come to the ballpark to play, and part of that is playing defense. That was taken away from me last year. I'm ready to play 162 games at first base."

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