Palmeiro's way: quiet, steady and strong

Baseball: A strong work ethic, a sweet swing and a demanding father propelled the Orioles first baseman into one of the game's most exclusive groups.

July 17, 2005|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,SUN STAFF

The shaggy-haired teen lines a pitch into the outfield, and the ping from his aluminum bat echoes throughout an empty Camden Yards.

The slightly graying, 40-year-old man on the pitcher's mound offers encouragement and throws again, prompting another unnatural baseball sound from 15-year-old Patrick Palmeiro's bat.

Recently, it has been that older man, Rafael Palmeiro, whose bat has been making the noise. He's the one who joined an elite baseball fraternity Friday night at Seattle's Safeco Field with a one-out double in the fifth inning against the Mariners to record his 3,000th career hit.

Palmeiro is best suited in a batter's box, exhibiting the butter-smooth left-handed swing that has helped him become the fourth player in major league history to collect 3,000 hits and 500 homers, joining Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray.

Yet standing on a mound tossing batting practice to his two sons is where he truly belongs, where he is most comfortable, where he will be for years to come. Out of the public eye, with a baseball in his hand. Teaching the sport to his children. Admonishing them for bad habits. Pushing them toward excellence.

And, with each instruction, paying homage to his own father, the no-nonsense Cuban immigrant who made the Orioles first baseman what he is today.

Out of Cuba

To understand Palmeiro, to comprehend where this road to baseball immortality began, it's best to know what happened when he was 6.

Unfortunately, he can't guide you step by step through those days; they were too long ago. The person who can is off-limits.

It's one of the few requests the soft-spoken Palmeiro makes of the media: Don't bother his father, Jose, 76, who lives in an upscale home in Miami that his famous son purchased for him. There have been past interviews, and Palmeiro wasn't happy with the results. Besides, Palmeiro knows what his dad will say: "He'll be like, `That is his deal. He's the one doing it. I don't want any part of'" the glory.

So, the ballplayer's interpretation will have to do.

Jose Palmeiro, an ice cream stand owner in Cuba, disagreed with the Communist policies of Fidel Castro. In 1971, with government permission, Jose Palmeiro took his wife and three of his sons, ages 7, 6 and 3, and left Havana for Florida.

That one act defined a family. And it made an indelible impression on a boy.

`A lot of courage'

"It takes a lot of courage, I think, to leave your country," Palmeiro said. "To leave everything you worked for, all your money, all your possessions, all your clothes, everything behind. And going to a foreign country with three little kids, without a job, without money, without knowing anyone. I think that takes a lot of courage."

The Palmeiro family settled in Miami and the father took a construction job, working hours upon back-breaking hours for survival.

The boys had little - except a mother who smothered them with love, a baseball diamond within walking distance and a dad who burned to teach America's pastime.

"He'd come home at 4:30 every afternoon from being out in the sun working in construction, and he'd come in, drink a glass of water, eat a sandwich and we'd go to the ballpark," Palmeiro said. "That takes a lot of dedication and love for your kids."

This is how Palmeiro's story grew, from roots of poverty and struggle into hope.

Watching the Orioles

As a kid, Palmeiro and his brothers would watch Murray, Ken Singleton and other Orioles take batting practice before spring training games at Miami Stadium. They'd wait for home run balls to leave the park, then they'd chase them down and use the balls for their own games.

"A lot of the other kids would get balls and sell them for 50 cents or a dollar when the fans were coming into the games," Palmeiro said. "But I never sold a baseball. I never took one either; the only ones I took were the ones that came over the fence."

That's Palmeiro's story, anyway.

"He was one of those kids who used to jump over the fence and steal a baseball and throw it to his brother and jump back over the fence," Orioles bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks said with a laugh. "I told him he should be the world's greatest hitter for as many baseballs as he stole."

Focused on goals

Even when he wasn't playing, Palmeiro was working toward baseball goals. He developed his quick wrists by squeezing tennis balls while watching television. And all of the Palmeiro boys swung bats daily to keep sharp.

This wasn't just pressure from the family patriarch. This is what was inside Palmeiro, said his wife of nearly 20 years, Lynne.

"I think some of it comes from what his dad instilled in him, but I also think that is just his personality makeup," Lynne Palmeiro said. "Even though Rafael's dad pushed him and expected and demanded a lot, I think with Rafael, that's also his nature. He expects a lot of himself."

On to college

Ron Polk influenced Palmeiro's career. But the legendary Mississippi State baseball coach acknowledged that he had little to do with the sweet Palmeiro swing.

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