"I'm not a crazy person. I'm not stupid. . . . I don't know how it happened. . . . It was an accident."
Rafael Palmeiro, after being suspended for 10 days for using steroids
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.
"Why would I do that in a year when I went in front of Congress and I testified and I told the truth?" Palmeiro said. "Why would I do this in a season when I was going to get to 3,000 hits? It makes no sense. I would not put my career on the line. I would not put my reputation on the line and everything I have accomplished throughout my career. I would not do that. . . . It was an accident. I'm paying the price. . . .
"This is the toughest time that I've gone through in my life with anything."
All this makes sense -- of a sort. President Bush, who owned the Rangers when Palmeiro was a star for them, said: "Rafael Palmeiro is a friend. He testified in public and I believe him. . . . Still do."
However, personal friends aside, Palmeiro may be surprised at how few people will give him a second benefit of the doubt, especially on such a large scale. The Oriole is now asking the public to ignore both a direct accusation by Canseco, which he has not challenged in court, and a laboratory test result that he does not even contest.
Also, in the manner of other non-confession confessions, Palmeiro sounded contrite Monday when he said: "I made a mistake and I am facing it. I hope that people learn from my mistake and that the fans can forgive me."
Forgive, certainly, in time. But forget the link now forged between Palmeiro and steroids? Not likely. According to one industry source, the steroid in Palmeiro's system was a "serious" one. That would seem a forgone conclusion. Would baseball take action against so famous a player unless the facts were damning enough that nobody could contradict their seriousness?
Palmeiro and his agent, as well as the Orioles, repeated many times that they could not go into details about Palmeiro's steroid blunder because of some "confidentiality" issues. "I would love to tell what happened to me so that everyone would understand," said Palmeiro, "but under this confidentiality agreement, I cannot get specific."
Unfortunately, what we may have here is a Stupidity Test. As in: How stupid are we? Whose "confidentiality" is being protected? Palmeiro's, of course. If he wanted to explain more, who could stop him from defending his good name? The union and baseball have a confidentiality agreement that prevents them from releasing information. But that doesn't put masking tape over the player's mouth. If Palmeiro had a compelling story, who could force him to stay silent?
When Raffy comes back in 10 days, maybe he'll have a tale to tell. But by then, it will probably be far too late. The damage is done. Those in Camden Yards on Monday could only shake their heads when they looked at the huge sign on the B&O Warehouse -- two stories high and three windows wide -- that said, "Congratulations, Raffy! 3,000."
As Palmeiro was chasing his 3,000th hit, he surely knew what was chasing him. This wasn't a short process. A drug test was positive. A 10-day suspension was given. The union filed a grievance on Palmeiro's behalf. Ultimately, an arbitration panel rejected that grievance on Monday. As Palmeiro listened to cheers, he probably suspected that even more jeers were on the way.
Since the late '80s, many in baseball have taken steroids. Recently, Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt said that, if he'd played in the current era, he thought he would have succumbed to temptation and taken steroids. Couldn't have resisted the peer pressure. Would have wanted to compete, be the top dog. Would have probably accepted the risk to health and reputation.
There but for the grace of God go I, said Schmitty. But he also said taking steroids was cheating. No way around it.
For two years our sports culture, right up to Congress, has been building a huge Steroid Trap, just waiting for a famous star to get caught inside. Somebody was going to get nailed, become the symbol and carry the weight. All the more fitting if the culprit was a shocker, perhaps somebody who shook his finger in the face of Congress and demanded his right to the benefit of the doubt. Too bad it turned out to be Rafael Palmeiro. It could have been so many bigger rats.