Palmeiro deserves decision -- now

ORIOLES FOCUS

Baseball

September 12, 2004|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

The number is out there. Everyone knows it's out there.

Rafael Palmeiro needs to play 140 games on defense this year to trigger the $4.5 million option on his contract for next season. So the man with 545 career home runs and 2,903 career hits comes to the ballpark each day and holds his breath.

Palmeiro enters the clubhouse and checks for his name on the lineup card. Yesterday, he wasn't in the field again. He was the designated hitter, and with the Orioles facing Yankees right-hander Orlando Hernandez, this wasn't a good sign.

It's obvious to him what's happening now. The Orioles are phasing him out. On Aug. 28, he had played first base in 117 of the team's first 128 games. Since then, he has played defense in just five of the past 12, the last time coming Tuesday.

That means, if he doesn't play defense in five of the remaining 22 games, the option year on his contract won't vest. The Orioles could exercise a $500,000 buyout and cut him loose.

And then all those nice things everyone said on Jan. 10, when he signed this contract, will lose their meaning. Palmeiro said he wanted to retire here and go into the Hall of Fame as an Oriole, assuming he's selected.

The Orioles said that's exactly what they wanted, too.

Palmeiro, who slugged 182 home runs for the Orioles from 1994 to 1998 before returning to the Texas Rangers, said he felt like he was coming home.

So it's a shame that it has come to this.

Palmeiro, who turns 40 on Sept. 24, had two meetings with manager Lee Mazzilli at the end of August, when Mazzilli explained the team's desire to give Jay Gibbons and Jose Leon more time at first base.

Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan went on record last week saying the lineup decisions aren't based on Palmeiro's contract, but his performance.

And after years of remarkable consistency -- the past nine with at least 38 home runs -- Palmeiro's performance has hit a wall. He went 3-for-4 yesterday and hit his 17th homer of the season, but his power numbers are down, and he's batting just .179 against left-handers.

"You want to see him do well," Mazzilli said. "You're talking about a great ballplayer. You're talking about a Hall of Fame player. But this is also part of the job, I guess, the business and the personal.

"He's been great. Raffy's been a true professional."

Palmeiro has said he never thought the 140-game clause would become an issue, as long as he remained healthy. Publicly, he refuses to criticize the club. But teammates say he's furious.

And until this series with the Yankees, when Mazzilli used him as the DH in consecutive games against right-handed pitchers, Palmeiro still had hope that the option would vest.

"I don't know whether I'm going to play, whether I'm going to DH, whether I'm going to play first," he said. "No, I just come in and look at the board to see if I'm playing, which I've never really had to do my whole career."

If Palmeiro didn't have Hall of Fame credentials, this would be more acceptable. But the Orioles need to let him know where he stands. He has meant too much to this organization to keep him guessing.

Mazzilli probably should have rested Palmeiro more earlier in the season, but injuries to Gibbons, David Segui and B.J. Surhoff have limited the options at first base.

And if the Orioles want to upgrade at that position for next season -- with Richie Sexson and Carlos Delgado among the potential free agents -- they should consider renegotiating with Palmeiro now.

Because the way this is going, it won't be pretty come October.

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