Power Swing

Orioles: A blast from his father began Rafael Palmeiro's home run trot, and major league pitchers haven't fenced him in since.

Orioles

April 20, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

Rafael Palmeiro was feeling pretty good about himself when he picked up the telephone one day late in the summer of 1988. His father was on the line, and he knew the conversation would quickly steer toward baseball.

Palmeiro had always known his father to be tough on him, but he had three hits that day for the Chicago Cubs, helping him keep pace with Tony Gwynn in the race for the National League batting title.

Jose Palmeiro had watched the game on television from Miami, and what he said would help transform a remarkable career.

"He just ripped into me," the younger Palmeiro said. "Basically, he said, `You're an outfielder who needs to drive the ball and hit for power, and the way that you're approaching hitting right now is not going to keep you in the big leagues for a long time.' "

At first, Palmeiro was stunned, though he knew his father was right. At the time, neither of them could have predicted how far Palmeiro's evolution as a hitter would take him. The Orioles first baseman enters tonight's game against Tampa Bay with 529 career home runs and 2,791 hits.

But they both knew a 23-year-old left fielder with average speed and a below average throwing arm wasn't going to last long as a slap hitter.

Jose Palmeiro predicted his son would eventually get moved to first base, and teams normally reserve that position for one of their best power hitters.

"I was always a power hitter everywhere I played," Rafael Palmeiro said. "From the very beginning of my [career], as a kid, all the way up through college, I hit a lot of home runs. I had that natural ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark.

"In '88, for some reason, I started slapping the ball the other way, and I really can't tell you why. But I started to evolve into a hitter that wasn't me. And I think my dad saw the same thing."

Jose knew his son's swing as well as anyone. They had crafted it together from the time Rafael was 9 years old.

Driven by Dad

Every day, Jose would swing home from work and pick up his three boys to practice baseball in the park. A hard-driving man who had moved the family from Cuba to Miami when Rafael was 6, Jose pushed and pushed and pushed.

"As kids, we lived in a really rough part of Miami, and he kept us off the streets by taking us to the ballpark, keeping us busy with baseball," Palmeiro said. "He was very strict with us, but we needed it."

Palmeiro emerged as a prep star at Miami Jackson High and made a seamless transition to Mississippi State, where he became a three-time All-American. In 1984, he hit .415 for the Bulldogs and finished second in the nation with 29 home runs.

But like many hitters, Palmeiro had a difficult adjustment going from college to pro because of the switch from aluminum to wood bats.

"The wood bat's heavier, and you don't generate as much power," Palmeiro said. "It took me a while."

A first-round draft selection by the Cubs, Palmeiro quickly climbed through the minors, but with some light home run totals - five at Peoria in 1985, 12 at Pittsfield in 1986, 11 at Iowa in 1987.

After a brief stint in the big leagues in September 1986, Palmeiro came up for good in June 1987 and teased everyone that season with 14 home runs in 221 at-bats.

But in 1988, the year of the fateful phone call, Palmeiro's home run total sank to eight. Gwynn won the batting title at .313, and Palmeiro finished second at .307.

So unimpressed were the Cubs, they traded Palmeiro to the Texas Rangers that offseason in an eight-player deal that brought closer Mitch Williams to Chicago and also sent Jamie Moyer to Texas.

"I basically had to refocus," Palmeiro said. "I started working on pulling the ball a little bit more, got into lifting weights a little bit."

It was a gradual process. He hit eight home runs again with Texas in 1989, and the totals jumped to 14, 26, 22 and 37.

Trying out a new Yard

In 1994, Texas opened The Ballpark in Arlington, but Palmeiro departed as a free agent for another left-handed hitter's paradise - Camden Yards. He signed a five-year, $30 million deal with the Orioles and hit 182 home runs over the length of that contract.

Terry Crowley took over as the Orioles' hitting coach the year after Palmeiro left, but he continued using Palmeiro as a role model for his young hitters.

"I told them to watch him in batting practice, watch his habits, watch his balance, watch how he kept his swing short and basically hit the ball where it was pitched," Crowley said. "I used him as an example of a good, solid hitter, with a short compact swing.

"And if you did those things correctly, you could hit for power. He's an example of someone who does not have to be 6-5, 240 to hit the ball over the fence."

At 6 feet, 214 pounds, Palmeiro doesn't have the rippling muscles of the other modern home run marvels, such as Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds.

But Palmeiro still does things that make other hitters marvel.

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