Palmeiro test enters new phase, but Perlozzo stays on message

August 14, 2005|By PETER SCHMUCK

THERE IS NO handbook for this kind of situation, so Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo is playing it as it lies.

There also is no real precedent, since Rafael Palmeiro is the first superstar baseball player to be suspended for using illegal performance-enhancing drugs, so it really doesn't matter that Perlozzo has spent exactly 10 days as a major league manager. There is no right way to handle a situation that has gone so wrong.

"The right way for us is, when we come in the door, he's our teammate," Perlozzo said. "That's what I said when I talked to the team the other night. If I can't hold to what I talked about, I have no credence in the clubhouse. We are truly together when we are in here."

Perlozzo said last night that Palmeiro will return to the starting lineup today as the designated hitter. He has been eligible to play for the past three days, but the moment - at least in Perlozzo's mind - is finally right.

"He came to me and said, `Play me or don't play me, I don't want to hurt the team,'" Perlozzo said. "When he gets out there, we'll know whether he can handle it or not. He'll either say `I don't really have it,' or `I can get through it.'"

Palmeiro has chosen his words very carefully over the past few days, and never has he revealed that level of apprehension about taking the field. He has dipped his toe in the water by signing autographs before each game, but he has yet to be formally re-introduced to a real crowd.

"Things already are pretty much back to normal in the clubhouse," Perlozzo said. "I don't think the team is thinking that much about it, but we're all going to be thinking about it tomorrow. We're all going to be looking at Raffy and hoping he does good."

This is where Perlozzo is playing if from the gut. He can't read the minds of every player in his clubhouse, but he can set the tone for a team that has been in crisis long enough.

He made it clear in his short team meeting on Wednesday night (the night before Palmeiro returned from his 10-day suspension) that he expected his players to close ranks around their beleaguered teammate, no matter what their personal feelings about his positive steroid test.

"If they don't like him outside the room, that doesn't bother me," Perlozzo said, "but in here, it does. That doesn't go just for Raffy. That goes for everybody."

Though Perlozzo has admitted that the events of his first 10 days as manager have been a bit overwhelming, it is obvious that he is confident that he can handle this unusual situation - which figures to require quite a bit more handling before it's totally resolved.

"We'll see how it goes," he said. "I'll spot [play] him for a while. He probably won't play in the first game in Oakland against [left-hander Barry] Zito, but he probably wouldn't have played against him anyway."

The Orioles have won six of nine games since Perlozzo replaced Lee Mazzilli on Aug. 4, so the Palmeiro scandal apparently has not been a major distraction to the rest of the team. Today might be another story, but Perlozzo is not interested in creating excuses at a time when the club needs to continue to dig out of its horrible midseason slump.

"I don't think it will affect the way we play," he said. "If it's not good [for Palmeiro and the team], then I'll spot him a little more. That will be my job. It will have nothing to do with Raffy. It all has to do with how I handle the ballclub."

The only really comparable situation that the Orioles' organization has experienced was the aftermath of the Roberto Alomar spitting incident, but Alomar was allowed to play immediately after his altercation with umpire John Hirschbeck. His suspension was held over until the start of the following season.

There was an uncomfortable moment when he and Hirschbeck met in a game for the first time, but Alomar made a very public apology on the field and he and Hirschbeck eventually let bygones be bygones.

Palmeiro seems to have made a separate peace with his teammates. He'll find out today just how far he must go to rebuild his relationship with the fans.

"I have a feeling our fans are going to be a little more receptive than you think," Perlozzo said.

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