A Big Star Plays A Bad Hand

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, August 2, 2005

BALTIMORE -- The benefit of the doubt is a terrible thing to lose.

Just five months ago, Rafael Palmeiro banked on that benefit of the doubt, a gift that America grants with universal and often indiscriminate generosity to anyone who requests it, when he testified before a Congressional committee.

"Let me start by telling you this, I have never used steroids. Period," said the Baltimore Orioles slugger who is one of four men in history with 500 homers and 3,000 hits.

Palmeiro pointed his finger for emphasis, a gesture that was universally understood. He was pushing all his chips, accumulated over a career, into the center of the table. All his well-known civic and charitable good deeds, his reputation as a clean player, were shoved into the pot to counterbalance the charge, made by Jose Canseco, that Canseco had injected Palmeiro with steroids on many occasions when they were teammates. Canseco wrote the accusation in a book. Then he swore to it before Congress. And Palmeiro denied it utterly, sitting just a few feet from Canseco.

There was no gray. Somebody was lying.

Of all the players in baseball, the least likely man to be caught cheating with steroids this season would be Palmeiro, right? Even if he had used them every day of his career, he would stop now, because anyone in their right mind would cease and desist.

Yet, in one of the most unexpected announcements ever made in baseball, Palmeiro has been caught, suspended and has actually admitted to using steroids this season. Palmeiro simply claims that he has no idea how they got in his body.

Abducted by aliens? Sat too close to Canseco at the hearing? Got a package in the mail that was intended for Jason Giambi?

Add Palmeiro to the list of those who did not "knowingly" cheat. Just 17 days ago, he was being celebrated for his 3,000th hit. Now, in one day, he's the tag line to every cynical wisecrack. The quip circulating among writers who vote on the Hall of Fame is that, someday, Palmeiro may be left out of Cooperstown, but not "knowingly," just by collective accident.

Palmeiro is now America's stock joke, its villain of the week, its symbol of hypocrisy or stupidity. In this culture, everybody gets a second chance, provided they come clean about their sins and take their punishment. And everybody also gets the benefit of the doubt. But heaven help you if, after playing that once-per-lifetime, I-swear-on-a-stack-of-Bibles card, you get nailed.

On ESPN radio on Monday, a tape was played over and over of former president Bill Clinton, saying, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," followed by Palmeiro saying, "I have never used steroids, period." In the background, banjos from "Deliverance."

For those of us who have known Palmeiro for years and like him -- which is not the same as believing him -- this is a bitter day. Palmeiro may have the most logical line of self-defense ever uttered by someone who will be believed by very few.


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