At Camden Yards, an emotional tug-of-war

Palmeiro Returns

August 15, 2005|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

Deep inside the bowels of Camden Yards, not more than 50 feet from the manager's office, there is a dimly lit tunnel. Each day, the tunnel is used by Orioles players as they leave the sanctuary of the clubhouse and walk onto the field, but an hour before each game, it is usually empty.

Yesterday, however, Rafael Palmeiro used this tunnel as a place to escape. He leaned back against one of the tunnel's faded orange walls, closed his eyes and stood perfectly still. Except for the black baseball bat gripped tightly in his hands, he was alone.

His solitude was only temporary. Soon, Palmeiro was walking to the plate in the first inning, where he was greeted by loud cheers, insults and jeers from the 30,954 who came to watch the Orioles play the Toronto Blue Jays. It was the first time Palmeiro had played since he was suspended for 10 days by Major League Baseball after testing positive for steroids, and if nothing else, the reaction he received showed just how polarizing he, and the issue of performance-enhancing drugs, have become.

"I mean, he cheated, and not only did he cheat, he's been so stupid about how he's dealt with getting caught," said Mike Schatzow, an Orioles season-ticket holder with seats behind home plate who booed Palmeiro each time he came to bat. "It's infuriating the way, as fans, we're treated like we're idiots sometimes. I'm actually surprised there were as many boos today as there were, but I think people are really fed up."

But just four rows away from Schatzow, Vivianne Pommeir of Washington had a very different opinion. She crossed her fingers when Palmeiro came to the plate for good luck, shouted encouraging words to him after each late swing and did her best to ignore the insults screamed in his direction.

"Until someone is proven to be guilty, I don't think anyone has the right to judge them," Pommeir said. "Isn't that what America is all about? Doesn't he deserve his day in court? He's done a lot of good things for the Orioles, and people should support him."

It was like that most of the day in the stands, with the emotional tug of war beginning in the first inning, when Palmeiro came to the plate and drew a walk, and ending in the bottom of ninth, when Palmeiro came up with a chance to win the game.

`It was good'

"I thought it was good," Palmeiro said of the reception he received from the fans. "I mean, for the most part it was good."

No matter which side you were on, in the end, it turned out to be great theater in the 96-degree heat. With two outs and two runners on in the bottom of the ninth inning, Palmeiro came to the plate with the Orioles trailing, 7-6. Fans started chanting his name, and many of them rose to their feet. But after two weeks off, the 40-year-old who has collected 3,018 hits during his career could not deliver one more, as Palmeiro flied out to right field to end the game. Batting sixth as the designated hitter, he finished the day 0-for-4.

"I just wish we had a win. We had a chance to win it in the ninth, and I was up at the plate," Palmeiro said. "I thought it would've been a good opportunity for me to at least get a hit to tie the game. ... My timing is off a little bit. I thought I got a good swing. I just got under it a little bit."

After the game, Palmeiro acknowledged that he was a little nervous for his return, and compared it to the feeling baseball players usually get on Opening Day. Though he has spent much of the past two weeks getting savaged by fans, journalists and politicians, and released a statement early last week through his agent that said he could not talk about steroids as long as he remains under investigation for perjury by the House Committee on Government Reform, Palmeiro was polite and open during a brief session with the news media in front of his locker.

As he answered questions, he nervously fidgeted with a white towel in his hands, and when it was over, he smiled at his oldest son, Patrick, 15, and then hugged his younger son, Preston, 10, letting out a sigh that could easily be interpreted as relief.

"When I'm on the field, I'm not thinking about any of that stuff," Palmeiro said. "I'm just trying to do my job and do the best that I can here."

Yesterday was originally supposed to be a chance for Orioles fans to celebrate Palmeiro's career instead of question it. When he picked up his 3,000th hit on the road July 15 in Seattle, the team scheduled a Rafael Palmeiro Appreciation Day. But after his suspension, Palmeiro and the Orioles decided to cancel it to avoid potential embarrassment.

"I don't think it would have been appropriate anyway," Palmeiro said. Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said he didn't say much to Palmeiro during the game, offering only a few words of encouragement after each of his at-bats. He said he also thought the crowd was more supportive than negative.

`The cheers stayed'

"Once the boos died out, the cheers stayed," Perlozzo said. "I thought there was more cheering. ... I'm sure it's a relief to get [the first game] out of the way. He's probably in there right now, taking a deep breath and saying, `Man, I'm glad that's over with. Now I can focus on playing again.'"

And though most would agree that the fans' reaction toward Palmeiro at Camden Yards was a split decision, it will likely be much different this week when the Orioles travel to Oakland for a three-game series.

"I'm not sure what to expect," Palmeiro said. "I'll deal with it, I'm sure."

Taylor Luckenbill, 11, who traveled from Pennsylvania to watch the Orioles, said he thinks fans will eventually forgive Palmeiro, on one condition.

"He has to prove himself," Luckenbill said. "He needs to show people that he can still hit and that he's still the same player when he's not on steroids."

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