As quietly as his exquisite 20-year career has unfolded, Rafael Palmeiro is approaching a milestone that screams for attention. The sweet-swinging left-handed first baseman of the Orioles is just days from reaching one of baseball's benchmarks, 3,000 hits. Only 25 major leaguers in history have that many. It's an exclusive club that Palmeiro is about to join, but not nearly as exclusive as the one he will enter simultaneously. Only three players have amassed 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. With 563 home runs, Palmeiro is about to squeeze in with the immortals.
Unarguably, Hank Aaron and Willie Mays are immortals of the game. The third, Eddie Murray, a teammate of Palmeiro's on the 1996 Orioles, was a first-ballot Hall of Famer and one of the greatest switch hitters ever. Aaron, Mays, Murray and, very soon, Palmeiro. This is a club that does not often take in new members. One way to put the feat in perspective is to think of all those famous players who failed to accomplish it, beginning with Babe Ruth.
"Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray, three of the best players of all time, to be in that category is just mind-boggling to me, really," Palmeiro said the other day by his locker at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. All it has taken is 20 years worth of the following: consistency, power, few injuries, few slumps and an even temperament. "A lot of it has been being lucky," he said.
And that's true. Even with his talent, he still has needed the favor of the gods in matters small (avoiding twisted ankles, pulled muscles, etc.) and large (his general health and longevity). Lou Gehrig might have made it had it not been for his terminal illness. Ted Williams, who hit 521 home runs, was plagued by injuries, and he lost nearly five full seasons to military service, leaving him with 2,654 hits. Frank Robinson -- is there any doubt why he gets respect from his Nationals players? -- hit 586 home runs but fell barely short of 3,000 hits with 2,943. Many have approached the 500-3,000 club. But, yes, Palmeiro needed the fates as well as that which Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli described as the essential virtue. "One word," he said. " 'Consistency.' "
It was a special kind of consistency, at that.
"You can be consistent," Palmeiro said, "but you have to have a certain level that you have to maintain. I think I've maintained a pretty good level throughout my career. Not great-great. I can't put myself in a category with some of the great players of all time, but I've been pretty good consistently throughout my career."
His fame might have been greater had he played for the Yankees, had he ever played in the World Series, had he been to more than four all-star games. He never hit 60 home runs in a season; he never hit 50 in a season. He rarely led the league in any major offensive category. He was never the "main man" on any club: In Texas, there were Alex Rodriguez and Pudge Rodriguez; in Baltimore it was Cal Ripken and now Miguel Tejada. Palmeiro has played Gehrig to assorted Ruths.
But not unlike that other affable first baseman, Gehrig, Palmeiro has often managed to step forth from someone else's shadow and claim a certain appreciation. He played almost every day from 1988 through 2004. He drove in more than 100 runs 10 of 11 years, the exception being the strike-shortened 1994 season. His home runs totals ranged between 38 and 47 over nine seasons. Palmeiro has always produced, an American trademark. As many have, he made it to America and surpassed his dreams.
He was 6 years old when his parents took him and his two brothers by boat from Cuba to Miami. There, at the neighborhood field, Roberto Clemente Park, Jose Palmeiro, a construction worker who loved baseball, taught his son the fundamentals of the game. He became an all-American at Mississippi State, began his major league career with the Cubs and spent most of his time in two stints with both the Rangers and the Orioles.
"At one point I felt I have a shot, I have a shot at 500 home runs and I have a shot at 3,000 hits, but I can't pinpoint when that was," he said. "It might have been four or five years ago. But what's made it more special for me is that we're winning and we've been in first place most of the year."
Palmeiro, 40, considers himself blessed in part because his parents have followed his entire career and because these days his sons, Patrick and Preston, are often with him in the Orioles' clubhouse before games. With his chatter, Tejada is the dominant presence there; the quiet Palmeiro blends in. He is 6 feet tall, about 215 pounds. In the white jersey, jeans and running shoes that he wore to the park the other day, he could have passed, perhaps, for a neighbor on your block about to cut his lawn.
In Baltimore, he is loved. Now that he is just single digits from 3,000, he is receiving standing ovations with every hit. And certainly there are Washington area fans in love with the new Nationals who still regard Palmeiro with affection from all the times they watched him play (and despite Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who not only did all he could to block baseball from returning to Washington, but also might be remembered for letting Palmeiro return to Texas after five beautiful seasons in Baltimore, 1994-98. He didn't want to leave.).
Barbara Russell is a typical Palmeiro fan. A nurse at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center, she keeps a Raffy bobblehead on a shelf in her office. Yesterday she gave it a hug and a kiss.
"Have you seen those eyes?" she asked. "He's got a swagger -- a little one -- like John Travolta. He moves very gracefully. He always seems gentlemanly, also."
I could attest only to the "gentlemanly" part. When I think of Palmeiro, it's the effortless-looking swing that comes to mind. His father taught him that swing back in Roberto Clemente Park, and when Palmeiro reaches 3,000, he will tie Clemente's hit total. Clemente was the first Latin American player to make baseball's Hall of Fame. Palmeiro, without question, will follow him to Cooperstown.