A year later, steroid stain taints O's, Palmeiro

July 30, 2006|By RICK MAESE

Rafael Palmeiro was spotted last week in the tunnel outside the visitors' clubhouse at Ameriquest Field in Arlington, Texas. His hair had grown out, he was sporting a beard and those who spotted him said Palmeiro looked like he'd lost some weight.

Meanwhile, Major League Baseball is in the midst of an unprecedented investigation into steroid use among its players. And the Orioles, now linked to performance-enhancing drugs more than just about any other team, enter the final two months of the season all but assured of finishing either fourth or fifth in the American League East.

One year ago, it was a different world. A large banner still hung on the warehouse beyond the right-field wall. "Congratulations Raffy! 3000" it read, celebrating Palmeiro's memorable hit just two weeks earlier. The Orioles were two weeks removed from being a half game out of first place. Baseball's steroid problem was suddenly talked about in the past tense, as if the worst were in the rear-view mirror.

On Aug. 1, 2005, the news broke - "Palmeiro suspended for positive drug test" - irreversibly damaging the silent slugger, a struggling franchise and a sport that was so close to repairing its tarnished image.

Still now, I can't help but wonder what would have happened if we all woke up that day, if Palmeiro hadn't been scratched from the starting lineup, if that banner was able to hang proudly from the warehouse for many days and weeks to come.

Surely Palmeiro's life would be different. For one, he wouldn't be unemployed right now. Though he was 40 years old, he hadn't suffered from chronic injuries and his numbers were still solid, certainly solid enough to have enticed some team to sign him during the offseason.

And no one would even question whether Palmeiro, one of only four players with 3,000 hits and 500 homers, would gain entrance into the Hall of Fame.

Reflecting on how Palmeiro was affected is easy. But his suspension had a profound impact on the Orioles as a franchise. They'd entered that day's game against the White Sox with a five-game losing streak; they'd lost 11 of their past 12.

Miguel Tejada was moved to Palmeiro's cleanup spot (he went 0-for-4) and Melvin Mora batted in Tejada's spot in the three-hole (0-for-5). Chris Gomez played in place of Palmeiro at first (1-for-4) and had a runner in scoring position in his first three trips to the plate. He knocked zero in.

The White Sox won the game, 6-3. We won't know whether things would've been different that day if Palmeiro was in the lineup, if he could have helped end the streak, take some momentum onto the road, provide some muscle for the team's anemic offense over the final two months of the season.

He played only seven more games and had just two more hits. It's safe to say that his absence not only affected the Orioles for the remainder of the 2005 season, but that the franchise also is still reeling from the blow today.

It's a difficult assertion to quantify perfectly. On the field, the absence of Palmeiro wasn't Problem No. 1, 2 or 3 - but it does speak to something much larger.

The steroid suspension came when the Orioles were at a crossroads. The trading deadline had already passed, and they failed to upgrade their pitching. That doomed the team's playoff chances. But if Palmeiro were still in the lineup every day - he traditionally performed especially well in August and September - how different would the team be today? Would the clubhouse have been fractured? Would Tejada still be so moody? Could they have entered the offseason with more focus?

Before long, the steroid spotlight would again shine on Camden Yards when former Orioles David Segui and Jason Grimsley both admitted to using performance enhancers. Grimsley even finger-pointed at least a couple of former Oriole teammates as having used some type of illegal substance (though those names have been suppressed and still haven't been revealed).

Palmeiro was the first domino. At a time when the Orioles were trying to bandage a paper cut, Palmeiro's suspension was like a shotgun blast to the gut, one that triggered a series of other setbacks - on the diamond, in the clubhouse, in the front office.

And all across baseball.

MLB officials thought the worst was behind them. They paraded their players in front of Congress just four months earlier, as if to smile for the nation and say, "Nothing to see here." They'd spent the previous year sweeping their problems under a rug. But they couldn't hide Raffy there.

He served as the biggest piece of uncontested evidence of a steroid problem. It was the first time anyone started believing a word out of Jose Canseco's mouth. And it planted skepticism in the heart of even the most trusting fan. If one of the game's good guys was using, then no longer could anyone in cleats be presumed innocent.

The controversy still swirls strong around every baseball game, enough for baseball officials to hire George Mitchell, a former U.S. senator, to conduct an independent investigation.

Would Mitchell be touring America's ballparks were it not for Palmeiro? Possibly. Barry Bonds walks around with a large target on his back, but Palmeiro is still the most prominent player to test positive for steroids. Lab tests haven't indicted Bonds, Jason Giambi or Gary Sheffield and with the most damning evidence stemming from leaked grand jury testimony, baseball could've continued running from its problem.

Palmeiro was spotted last week. He no longer looks like a baseball player but says he wants to play again. He can't move on. Maybe none of us have.

A year has passed, and no one has recovered - not the Orioles and certainly not Palmeiro. rick.maese@baltsun.com

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