Rafael Palmeiro strolled into the big sports memorabilia show at the Hilton Hotel in Pikesville Sunday wearing an orange sweater, jeans and a hip goatee that made him look like the bass player in a jazz band.
He was nearly three hours late. His flight from Texas had been delayed. Mechanical problems, Palmeiro explained as a crowd quickly formed to have the former Orioles great sign baseballs and bats and whatever else was thrust in front of him.
"First time back in Baltimore?" someone asked.
"First time since I left in 2005," he said.
"How does it feel?" the person wanted to know.
"It feels good," Palmeiro said. "Feels like I was coming home after a long road trip or something."
Maybe he did feel good to be here — getting off a jet with warning lights flashing in the cockpit can have that effect on a person. But the truth is, this town also holds a lot of painful memories for Palmeiro.
He was playing first base for the Orioles in March 2005 when he famously wagged his finger in front of a Congressional subcommittee looking into steroid use in baseball and said: "I have never used steroids. I don't know how to say it any more clearly than that."
Late that season, just days after he got his 3,000th hit, the news broke that he had tested positive for steroids.
Palmeiro insisted a tainted B-12 shot given to him by teammate Miguel Tejada was to blame. Hardly anyone believed him and he was roundly ridiculed. The positive result earned him a 10-game suspension. And it marked an ignominious end to an otherwise brilliant 20-year career (569 homers, 1,835 RBI, 3,020 hits, three Gold Gloves) that should have landed him in the Hall of Fame.
"You know that 3,000th hit, going through that was a nightmare," Palmeiro said now, signing baseballs in a side room at the Hilton. "'Cause I was going through the issues I was having with the commissioner's office (with his failed steroid test). I don't look back on 3,000 hits as a celebration. I look back on that as a nightmare."
After the season, Palmeiro went back to Texas in disgrace. He more or less dropped out of sight after that. Friends said he was bitter and depressed about the damage done to his reputation — and his legacy as one of the best to ever play the game.
These days, the 47-year-old Palmeiro says he dabbles in construction development in Texas, does a few baseball memorabilia shows every year and focuses on his kids. And he still insists he told the truth about the tainted B-12 shot.
"It's the only explanation there is," he said. "I don't have another explanation to give. Did I inject myself with steroids? No, I didn't. Could it have been the B-12?"
He shrugged and put down his pen.
"It's the only logical explanation I have. People can choose to believe me or not."
Some people do. Tom Davis, the retired Virginia congressman who headed the 2005 subcommittee that summoned Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Jose Canseco to testify, told AOL Fanhouse earlier this year: "I believe that (Palmeiro) didn't know he was taking steroids. I think he told the truth."
But a lot of other people doubt him. And foremost among the doubters is the Hall of Fame selection committee. This past January, in his first year of eligibility, Palmeiro was named on just 11 percent of the ballots cast, far short of the 75 percent needed.
"Honestly, I didn't expect (to get in) because of what had happened to Mark McGwire the year before," Palmeiro said, referring to a similar snub of the former A's and Cardinals slugger. " . . . So I was thinking: 'It's not gonna happen.' I thought I'd get more votes. I thought 11 percent was low. But it is what it is. I didn't worry too much about it. It was painful, but I never played baseball to be a Hall of Famer."
Still, while Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar were named to the Hall and received congratulatory phone calls that January day, Palmeiro was left to field calls from reporters seeking his reaction to his pitifully-low vote total.
And despite what he says now, the vote left him reeling.
"I don't know what to say," he told USA Today in January. "This is one of those dark days in my life. The last five years, ever since that incident, I've felt like they were putting me in a coffin and putting nails in. Today they were throwing dirt in my coffin."
He sounds better about it now. Not at peace, exactly, but resigned to the possibility that it might take years for him to make the Hall, if he ever does.
I left him as he was signing a set of glossy photos of himself in his glory years with the Orioles. In a few hours, he was due back at BWI for the return trip home. I hope he had a nice flight. No delays, no turbulence, no mechanical problems.
The man has been through enough.
Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "Norris and Davis Show."