It's going to be a business decision, but Palmeiro's heart wants a say, too

October 04, 2004|By PETER SCHMUCK

RAFAEL PALMEIRO packed up a few things and left the Orioles clubhouse yesterday afternoon, not quite sure what to say as he walked past several younger teammates on the way out the door and, perhaps, out of Baltimore.

Was this goodbye for now or goodbye for good?

No one really knows.

Palmeiro clearly was bruised by the way the Orioles redistributed his playing time at first base over the past few weeks, annulling the vesting option that would have guaranteed him $4.5 million next year if he had appeared in 140 games in the field. Now, he's trying to figure out where he goes from here.

"It's a tough thing," he said. "You try to keep the emotion out of it, but it's hard for a player not to become emotionally attached to his team. I think the team takes a business approach and a player needs to do the same, but you get attached to a group of guys, the fans, a city."

If his tone sounds wistful, it's not an accident. Palmeiro returned to the Orioles last winter and declared he wanted to finish his career in Baltimore, where he had performed so impressively from 1994 to 1998. He never imagined his power and run-production numbers would decline so dramatically that the Orioles might balk at a lousy 4.5 million bucks.

Nobody did.

"When we did the deal, I thought it was a pretty attractive deal for the Orioles," Palmeiro said.

It was, because he was coming off a 38-homer, 112-RBI performance in Texas, but now he's 40 and he's coming off a 23-homer, 88-RBI season that has left the team unsure how he fits in next year.

So, yesterday may well have been his last day in an Orioles uniform, though he insists - hurt feelings or not - he is leaving the door open for 2005, even if it means coming back to split time between first base and designated hitter.

"I'm not opposed to that," he said. "I feel like I can play out there every day. I still don't think that was the problem this year. I think it was more one of approach. I think over the last 35 games, I got back to my style of hitting. I was trying to beat that [defensive] shift, and I was just beating myself."

His late-season surge at the plate seemed to validate the notion that he was fresher and stronger because he was getting more rest. Palmeiro doesn't necessarily agree, but he said yesterday that he was willing to test that theory in a split role next year.

"I would definitely be fresher," he said.

It comes down to how much the Orioles want him back. Palmeiro said his agent, Fernando Cuza, already has had a couple of conversations with the club, but you have to believe his future here depends on what happens in the free-agent market.

The Orioles are expected to pursue a big right-handed bat - probably outfielder Magglio Ordonez - but they could also make a run at power-hitting third baseman Troy Glaus, who might have to play first base if he came to Baltimore.

Palmeiro is going to play somewhere next year and hopes to play at least through 2006. He's moving up the all-time lists in several categories and stands 49 home runs from becoming only the fifth major leaguer to reach 600. He would like to come back here, because he can see this young team starting to blossom.

"It was a fun team over the last couple of months," he said. "Since the All-Star break, we've played good baseball, and we could have played even better. We have a legitimate shot at making a run at it. We may need one horse at the front of the pitching staff, but we were a fun team the last 35 or 40 games."

There is no white hat and black hat here. The team has to do what's best for the team, and Palmeiro has to do what's best for Palmeiro. He's a big boy.

"You have to look at it that way," he said, "but when I first came back, emotion played a big part in it. If not, I wouldn't have come back. I was emotionally attracted back to this place."

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