Low-profile Palmeiro plays at high level deserving of Hall

July 17, 2005|By JOHN EISENBERG

LET'S START with an admission: On the subject of Rafael Palmeiro being a Hall of Famer, you can build a case against him that isn't entirely ridiculous.

The fact that he has earned only four All-Star Game selections in 19 seasons? That doesn't sound like a Hall of Famer.

The fact that he has never been a league Most Valuable Player or won a league title in hitting, home runs or RBIs? That doesn't sound like a Hall of Famer.

The fact that he has a .244 career postseason average, never played in a World Series, never dominated his position? Certainly doesn't work in his favor.

But having said all that, let's move on to another admission: All that evidence doesn't mean piffle when compared with the case in favor of Palmeiro belonging in Cooperstown.

He does belong. And it's not even close.

He deserves to make it on the first ballot, the first year he is eligible.

There are any number of ways to judge Hall candidates, but career numbers are the most dependable basic criteria, the most objective way to determine whether a player rates. And Palmeiro's career numbers are far too spectacular, rare and special for him to be denied.

Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray are the only other major leaguers to compile 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. Talk about a rare feat.

And Palmeiro could join Aaron and Mays in the more exclusive "3,000 and 600" club if he plays long enough to hit 600 home runs, which he might at the rate he's going. (Murray "only" had 504 homers.)

Such accomplishments override all the evidence against him, rendering moot any debate about his worthiness.

His lack of individual titles and All-Star appearances make the debate more interesting, but in the end, those are just oddities that actually help explain his greatest strength.

He was never one of those shooting stars who soared to spectacular heights and flamed out - like Mo Vaughn, one of several first basemen who made All-Star teams ahead of Palmeiro during the 1990s.

Palmeiro was more like the tortoise than the hares Vaughn, Frank Thomas, Jason Giambi and others represented. He just slowly, steadily produced at a high rate for so many years that, like the tortoise in the fable, he eventually passed his rivals.

He did have some terrific seasons along the way, hitting .324 with 47 homers and 148 RBIs for the Texas Rangers in 1999, three years after he set an Orioles franchise record with 142 RBIs.

But mostly, Palmeiro has just quietly chipped away year after year with that enviable, sweet and oh-so-easy left-handed swing, putting up around 175 hits, 40 home runs and 110 RBIs a season, and importantly, never falling far from those levels because of injuries or slumps.

He has been a model of high-end consistency, and after almost two decades, his numbers have added up extraordinarily.

He admitted last week in a moment of keen self-awareness that his pending numerical place alongside all-time greats such as Aaron and Mays could be somewhat misleading.

"With numbers like that, maybe I belong in their group, but not their class. I know I'm not there," Palmeiro said.

He's right. He doesn't belong in the highest tier of Hall of Famers, the legends about whom books are written and movies made.

At the same time, his career numbers don't lie.

Some have wondered whether they - the numbers - should wield such absolute power in his Hall debate because they were compiled in a juiced-up era when all offensive statistics have been inflated by expansion, lousy pitching, smaller ballparks and steroids.

It's an interesting theory that deserves consideration and could come into play when borderline Hall candidates and known steroid users are up for induction.

But accurately determining the impact of any era's conditions on anyone's numbers is pretty much impossible. And in any case, Palmeiro was still superior to just about everyone he played with and against, a key Hall criterion. He had the second-most hits in the major leagues in the 1990s, and he's still popping the ball at the age of 40.

Why has he attracted so little attention until now? He has a low-key personality, for starters. Neither the Rangers nor the Orioles, his primary teams, has been a consistent winner during his career. And those other first basemen soared above him for brief periods.

But in the end, he is going where those others would love to go and probably won't.

To Cooperstown, as soon as he can.

3,000 club membership applicants

Active major leaguers with the best shot at joining Rafael Palmeiro in the 3,000-hit club, with their totals through Friday:

Player Hits Team Age Skinny

Barry Bonds 2,730 Giants 40 Not piling up hits these days

Craig Biggio 2,730 Astros 39 Gets back at pitchers with bat

Gary Sheffield 2,272 Yankees 36 Trade bait is with sixth team

Ken Griffey 2,248 Reds 35 Healthy, but for how long?

Garret Anderson 1,868 Angels 33 7 seasons with 180-plus hits

Manny Ramirez 1,847 Red Sox 33 600 homers could come first

Derek Jeter 1,841 Yankees 31 Postseason hits don't count

Alex Rodriguez 1,813 Yankees 29 Not even 30; sky's the limit

Edgar Renteria 1,516 Red Sox 29 Under radar; halfway there

Vladimir Guerrero 1,511 Angels 29 Few walks, so lots of swings

Todd Helton 1,459 Rockies 31 '05 slump hurts chances

Andruw Jones 1,345 Braves 28 Great glove can't rob himself

Miguel Tejada 1,286 Orioles 29 Two 200-hit seasons in past 3

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