Cheers for Palmeiro's last at-bat could be start of new beginning

August 15, 2005|By David Steele

WITH TWO OUTS and two on in the bottom of the ninth inning yesterday afternoon, the Rafael Palmeiro saga officially turned back into a baseball-only story.

What other conclusion can be drawn with that reception Palmeiro got as he left the on-deck circle with the fate of the Orioles' game in his hands?

During his previous four trips to the plate, the crowd of 30,954 at Camden Yards was the very definition of divided. On that last at-bat, though, the ratio was roughly this: against Palmeiro, 1; for Palmeiro, everybody else. The "Raf-fy, Raf-fy" chants had begun before he saw the first pitch from the Toronto Blue Jays' Miguel Batista; the rhythmic hand claps started at ball one.

Some guy unleashed a lonely "boo!" from the concourse level on the third base side, sounding like Bugs Bunny heckling the Gas-House Gorillas. Maybe a few other fans scattered about joined him. A lot more seemed to have headed home. There had to have been a few detractors at first-aid stations with IVs in their arms.

What those holdouts thought no longer mattered. Rafael Palmeiro, pariah, was one swing away from becoming Rafael Palmeiro, hero. It said a lot of things, but among them was the fact that if the steroid issue in baseball were decided by an All-Star Game-style punch-card ballot handed out at major league stadiums, there would be horse stimulants in every locker the next day.

Yet it was refreshing, in its own way, for the bizarre tale of the past two weeks to reach some sort of a climax. The Orioles' players and coaches will go to the ends of their careers claiming that Palmeiro's suspension for a positive steroid test, then his return to the club, then his return to action, were never a distraction. Good for them, because across baseball and this area, it's all anyone talked about - anyone, of course, except Palmeiro.

From the clubhouse to the press box to the stands, Camden Yards has been something of a laboratory for dealing with a crisis involving a marquee player running afoul of the steroid policy. From the fans' standpoint, for all the Baltimoreans who swore off the Bird habit in the wake of the Palmeiro mess, there were more than enough to take their places, with big crowds all weekend.

A lot clearly showed up planning to give Palmeiro a piece of their minds, and they made themselves seen and heard in a big way when he finally got into the lineup yesterday. But by day's end, more gave him a piece of their hearts, strictly because he represented a chance for the home team to win. Not exactly an earth-shaking revelation, but the speed at which the mood shifted was a little surprising.

Meanwhile, among the players, things appear completely back to normal, with Palmeiro's problems limited simply to when he'll get his swing back.

"No, not at all, that didn't bother me," Melvin Mora said of the chaos rampant around the team since late last week. "We're ballplayers. We support our guys."

"If you guys had been in here every day, you'd realize that it really didn't affect us," Eric Byrnes said. "We've had a managerial change, we've had a suspension of a potential future Hall of Fame baseball player, and guys have come to the park loose, smiling, happy to be here. And I think everyone's gone out and played hard. One thing we learn is that you can't control things that are out of your control."

The center of attention himself stayed on message; he didn't get any questions about where his case stood because no one expected him to answer them, but he talked about how he felt about playing again, about the crowd's greeting ("I thought it was good; for the most part it was good") and about getting back into a hitting groove.

"It's been two weeks since I've played. I'm sure I was a little anxious," he said. "I just wanted to get out there and get involved again."

The more he has talked since returning to the roster, the less he appears to be a man in either hiding or denial. How much would the perception of him be improved right now had he taken this route much earlier, even with the evasions on advice of counsel? No one will ever know.

Then again, judging by that ninth-inning ovation, Palmeiro might not have any perception problems at all. He'll have even less if, in the next week, the Orioles get on a roll on the road and he gets back to the form he had shown for the month leading up to the suspension. Fat chance of that happening, though, since the first stop is Oakland, where the Athletics are hot and their fans have, in recent years, heaved firecrackers and cell phones at opponents and provoked them to throw chairs into the stands in return.

Still, if Palmeiro and the Orioles return as a baseball team rather than centers of a media firestorm, they'll have rose petals strewn in their path. That ninth-inning at-bat was all the proof anyone needs.

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