Wouldn't it be nice? Sosa, Palmeiro play duet of hits

February 27, 2005|By LAURA VECSEY

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Sammy Sosa remembers his first career homer. So does Rafael Palmeiro, Sosa's teammate back in 1989.

"It was off Roger Clemens," Palmeiro said yesterday.

"Of course. We were teammates. He was the skinny guy with the Jheri Curl."

Back then, Sosa and Palmeiro were tight, sharing dreams in the Rangers' clubhouse, things they wanted to accomplish in baseball. The dreams were wild, but not wild enough to dare ponder 600 home runs or 3,000 hits.

"We used to talk about making enough money to have a car with wings that could fly," Palmeiro said.

"You could tell he wanted to be a star. He used to tell Ruben [Sierra] he'd have to get out of right field. That's my spot. Even as a rookie, he wanted to do big things."

In these early days of spring camp, Sosa and Palmeiro got a good laugh thinking back. Both were more circumspect about looking forward, however, refusing to dwell on what will no doubt be a season in which more big and wild baseball dreams will be realized, for each of them.

It's been slim pickings for celebrations the past few Orioles seasons, unless you count the dismissal of Syd Thrift and Mike Bordick's 110-game errorless streak.

Bordick was such a bright spot during the dog days of 2002, it seemed a major outrage when one of the game's best defensive shortstops took his glove and signed with Toronto.

That was then. This is now, a very different landscape.

Here are the clues: 600 and 3,000.

With those milestones in mind, it could not have been coincidence that on the first day of spring camp, Palmeiro and Sosa walked out of the dugout and over to the batting cage, side by side.

The image was striking, as in the entire team and fans in the stands thinking the same thought: There go 1,100 home runs.

Palmeiro is back, even after the Orioles let his contract run out last season, then signed the 20-year veteran to a one-year deal at a reduced salary.

Sosa, too, is an accidental kind of Oriole - a $7 million, no-fault rental slugger who eagerly awaits career salvation in Baltimore.

Neither of these two is Cal Ripken, whose consecutive-games streak was a long time in the making yet whose celebrations still proved one of the most transcendent occasions in baseball. It was a night to remember.

If Carl Pavano, Richie Sexson and Carlos Delgado were the free-agent apples of the Orioles' eye this winter, the failure to lure them to Baltimore was a letdown. Still, there's little doubt that the organization has lucked out, with Sosa and Palmeiro adding the kind of rich historical subtext.

The pair can turn a good season (think about the Orioles making trouble in the American League East or wild card) into something special.

Even a worst-case scenario (Orioles out of it by August) means Sosa and Palmeiro still generate fanfare for the franchise via their impressive individual milestones.

Sosa needs 26 home runs to reach 600. Palmeiro, who is already third among active players with 551 homers, needs 78 hits to reach 3,000.

Talk about the stars aligning.

For an organization that proved it knows a thing or two about celebrating career milestones for future Hall of Fame players, the Orioles are looking ahead to when and where and how Sosa and Palmeiro's plateau moments will be feted.

Sosa is a notoriously slow starter. He has hit .265 with 65 homers and 186 RBIs in April, his worst month of the season for power numbers his entire career.

That doesn't mean Sosa couldn't register the requisite total to hit the magic 600 by the All-Star break, but the Orioles will remain flexible - and creative - about ways to maximize the moment.

"We're thinking about sitting Sammy for a month to make sure [Sosa and Palmeiro] don't do it at the same time," Orioles spokesman Bill Stetka said with a smile.

"We're thinking it might happen in early August, in a series against the Rangers," quipped another Orioles spokesman, Spiro Alafassos, poking a little fun at the Texas organization that traded Sosa to the White Sox - and regretted it - and decided not to bring Palmeiro back after the 2003 season.

Sosa, 36, said yesterday that 600 homers is "all right, but I'm thinking about the next step; winning, me being happy here, doing what the team needs. People expect me to hit home runs, but I can hit .300. I'm a pretty good hitter, too, you know."

Palmeiro, 40, said he has gotten himself in good shape, hoping to avoid the fatigue that knocked him out of the lineup late in 2004. He hasn't hit the bombs that Sosa has wowed the crowd with so far this spring, but he has a sparkle in his eye, thinking maybe 3,000 hits might not be the only plateau he notches.

Does Palmeiro have 49 homers in him this season?

"Wouldn't that be something?" he said.

In the meantime, Palmeiro is proud of the records he's notched so far, even if he can't fathom having his name mentioned in the same breath as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth.

"How did I get here? It's mind-boggling," he said.

"I think you've got to be a little lucky, you have to be consistent and you have to be good," he said. "I think the difference, in my opinion, is that certain guys lose focus when they have success and they go away from what got them there in baseball. The guys who stay on course and remember what made them a success, continue."

Cars with wings? Sosa has a private jet, but neither Sosa nor Palmeiro realized that wild dream. Instead, the sluggers will take the hits, the homers, the history, together.

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