Getting An Earful

Comical: Palmeiro's fan brushback adds new meaning to stick it in his ear.

September 01, 2005|By David Steele

RAFAEL PALMEIRO is an American hero.

In our time of national crisis, with death and devastation all over the Gulf Coast where Hurricane Katrina hit, we needed some levity, some comic relief to take our minds off the scenes from Louisiana and Mississippi. And into that void Tuesday night stepped a brave, lonely, sensitive man with a pair of earplugs.

Earplugs. Because in the second road game in which Palmeiro had appeared in the month since his suspension for a positive steroids test, the Blue Jays fans that half-filled the open-roofed former SkyDome booed him loudly.

Palmeiro couldn't focus on what he was doing -- at the time, trying to break out of a gruesome post-suspension batting slump, but no doubt also thinking of ways he could avoid explaining the positive steroid test for a second full month. Nevertheless, he heard the boos for his first at-bat, then popped in the noise blockers for the next three. (The guess here is that he came prepared, and didn't send a clubhouse boy over to CVS for a quick purchase.)

They didn't help break the slump. But that's beside the point.

The point is ... earplugs. After one at-bat, in his second road game. Not at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park -- two upcoming Orioles destinations, by the way -- but in Toronto, whose fans don't exactly have the edge of those in Philly.

And, after a month in the cocoon, on the bench often on the road, bathed in largely supportive reaction by some pretty big crowds at Camden Yards, all while dutifully following the advice of counsel and declining to offer that long-awaited explanation. Yes, as of today, we're at exactly one month since the news broke, the first feeble excuse was issued and the subsequent cone of silence was brought down.

On a rare trip out of the cocoon, things got a little tense -- a little -- and out came the earplugs.

No pun intended, but that's a scream.

See, you thought no picture could possibly come back to haunt Palmeiro as much as the one that ran a month ago in every newspaper and on every Web site in the Western Hemisphere: the finger-point at the congressional hearing. Oh, he'll never outrun, outhit or out-alibi that finger-point, right?

Wrong. For pure yuks, the finger-point is eclipsed by the earplug close-up.

Which image will Palmeiro regret more? Tough call. The finger-point all but shouted, "Busted!" Not sure what one word matches the earplug photo, but the suggestions offered around town and around the country have not been flattering to Palmeiro's manhood, and we should just leave it at that.

Yet you might still be in a forgiving mood -- around here, you probably are, in light of the impolite responses to the suggestion that fans stay home upon his return from suspension. So you might have been willing to cut him some slack once you heard his explanation of the earplugs after the game Tuesday.

Well, the joke was on you! Palmeiro didn't give one that night! He said he'd talk about it later. Hmmm, that sounds familiar. To his credit, though, he stuck to his word, apparently was not advised by his lawyers to refrain from commenting, and talked before last night's game.

"I didn't think it was a big deal," he said in Toronto. "Maybe it wasn't the right thing to do. I've never been in a situation where I'm getting booed so badly, and I really don't know how to handle it."

Not bad. Heartfelt, yet still a touch clueless, and thus mildly amusing. (Didn't think it was a big deal, huh? More on that later.) Of course, if he had said the exact same thing a month ago, except for replacing "where I'm getting booed so badly" with "where I've flunked a steroid test," we might not be having this problem.

By themselves, falls from grace this swift and painful aren't funny. But this is one of those instances where the cliche about a tragedy putting things in perspective applies. There are far fewer laughs out there lately than usual, so you should cherish the ones that do come, and this is a good one.

There isn't a better sitcom out there right now than the summer hit set in B'more, Everybody Hates Raffy. What will that zany could-be Hall of Famer and his nutty teammates do this week?

Seriously, though, in response to his belief that this wasn't a big deal, here is a partial list of baseball players who, as far as anyone knows, never combated crowd reaction with earplugs: Reggie Jackson, Barry Bonds, Darryl Strawberry, Alex Rodriguez, Jason Giambi, Sammy Sosa, Steve Kline, Albert Belle, Ed Whitson, John Rocker, Jackie Robinson.

That's a lot of booing, for lots of reasons, right and wrong. Lots of concentration being tested, lots of success and failure. But no earplugs.

To Palmeiro, though, it's all such a distraction. Hardly anybody wanted to talk about the game that night, he noted, adding, "To me that's sad."

No, it's hilarious.

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