Many a mile and a hit between Cuba, Seattle

July 15, 2005|By Laura Vecsey

SEATTLE - On this night, with this chance at hand, his father and mother stayed home in Miami.

"They'll watch it on TV. It's too far for them to fly," Rafael Palmeiro said last night before Aaron Sele took the mound for the Seattle Mariners, and everyone who understands anything about baseball knew what this night was about.

The cameras flashed in the fading Northwest dusk when Palmeiro stepped to the plate in the top of the eighth inning.

And the 36,316 at Safeco Field moaned and groaned, wanting the moment, then growing fickle as Palmeiro fouled off two pitches, then saw ball two and ball three, and then, on a full count, ball four.

Ohhhhhhhhh! Let's see him do it, but if it's a strike, call it.

Not when it's this close. Not at this moment.

The strike zone was Palmeiro's friend late in this game, even if it did not present the perfect pitch on which to reach his latest lofty plateau.

It will come.

If hit No. 3,000 for Palmeiro, the Cuban-born player whose parents left the "regime" behind and settled in south Florida, was going to come in one of America's baseball outposts, it might as well be here.

Safeco Field was the place where another future Hall of Famer, Cal Ripken Jr., was named MVP of the 2001 All-Star Game by hitting a homer in dramatic fashion.

If it can't be at home, then here was a good alternative. The sky stays lit until close to 10 p.m. It's made for good mood lighting and is an excellent atmosphere in which to capture Palmeiro's (latest) historic moment.

And "here" isn't just this Pacific Northwest jewel of a ballpark. It's also this country, where the best baseball players in the world come to play.

The foreign-born players escape either political regimes or poverty or they come in search of the best competition, to see how they measure up in the major leagues, like Ichiro Suzuki.

This is how baseball found itself last night with a man named Rafael Palmeiro. His parents said "No" to Fidel Castro and, 30 years later, the son made good on some hard-won dreams, both ideological and statistical.

"I don't think I would have played baseball [had the family stayed in Cuba]," Palmeiro said. "As far as what I understand, the only people who got to play baseball are those who are with the regime, the communist regime."

"And I know we left the country because my parents were against that. So I don't think I would have played baseball. I would have done something else."

It's a good thing, the way things worked out. Not only did Palmeiro belong in the big leagues, he ranks among the elite.

How many players have been good enough, long enough, to crank out 3,000 hits?

Not Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth or Ted Williams.

Maybe that explained the Orioles' happy sense of anticipation at Safeco Field last night. It lagged only a little, during the second inning, when starter Daniel Cabrera lost control and the Mariners, in one quick attack, seemed eager to erase some of their first-half misery. The M's took a 3-0 lead and the Palmeiro show looked in danger.

But if hits are meaningful beyond the fact of their statistical existence, Palmeiro had to be happy with what came next. After grounding out in the second inning, he drove hit No. 2,999 to left field. The hard liner was a single - worthy of applause from the Safeco Field crowd.

The umpire called for the ball and Sele tossed it in.

But then it meant something more than a single. Palmeiro was on base when Jay Gibbons came up next and followed with a two-run homer.

This is the kind of meaning he wants attached to his hits.

That's why Palmeiro had been decidedly matter-of-fact about becoming the 26th player to record 3,000 hits. It is inevitable now, he said. The main thing is to help get the Orioles back into first place in the American League East, to push for a playoff berth.

In the midst of this quest, Palmeiro has been reluctant to step foot on center stage. So he has left the pomp and circumstance to others.

His sons, Patrick and Preston, hovered close last night, with Preston, the younger son, playing family cameraman. He's been filming his dad since hit No. 2,990, but last night, the digital camera was chronicling Palmeiro all during batting practice.

This night had all the potential of a nice and important night - and the stage was a good one. Bright lights, cool air blowing in off Elliott Bay.

"I played a lot of games here when I was with the Rangers," Palmeiro said about the Mariners team against which he had collected 224 of his 2,998 hits entering the game.

In the past, at least, Seattle has been good to Palmeiro. Maybe that's why the crew here stood at the ready for the future Hall of Famer.

In the visitors' clubhouse, longtime attendant Henry Genzale hung four extra No. 25 jerseys in Palmeiro's locker before the game.

"That way he can sign them and all five can be authenticated as the ones he wore during the game," Genzale said.

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