-- The sign hanging from the warehouse adjacent to Oriole Park at Camden Yards proved an ironic backdrop to the day. In celebration of Rafael Palmeiro's 3,000th hit, the Baltimore Orioles hung a massive banner that in bright, bold orange letters, read, "Congratulations Raffy!"
There was certainly nothing to celebrate on this somber day. Palmeiro, who only 17 days ago was honored for joining Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray as the only players to have at least 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, was suspended for 10 days Monday for violating baseball's anti-drug policy.
Palmeiro said he accidentally ingested a steroid and said he isn't sure when or how it happened. He appealed the suspension, but on Monday morning an independent arbitrator rejected the claim.
"I hope the fans understand I've worked very hard over a long 20-year career," Palmeiro said in a conference call with reporters. "I put in a lot of time and a lot of effort into my career. I made a mistake and I'm facing it. I hope people learn from my mistakes. I hope the fans forgive me."
The Orioles' clubhouse, after a 6-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox on Monday, emptied out quickly. Players were reluctant to comment on Palmeiro, who did not speak to the team after his suspension was announced.
One teammate, the only one who spoke about Palmeiro, was brief and to the point.
"We need to try to be as supportive as we can," Orioles outfielder B.J. Surhoff said. "This is going to be a pretty tough ride for him."
Palmeiro had emerged as perhaps baseball's best spokesman against steroid use. Cast as a steroid user by former slugger Jose Canseco in his book, Palmeiro criticized his former teammate and questioned Canseco's spotty reputation.
Palmeiro emphatically denied using steroids in his testimony on March 17 during the House Government Reform Committee's hearing on steroids on Capitol Hill. He pointed his right finger at legislators and said, "I have never used steroids. Period."
Palmeiro's testimony was in stark contrast to former slugger Mark McGwire, who looked uncomfortable as he repeatedly declined to answer questions and afterward was vilified by baseball fans and the media.
"When [Palmeiro] was so adamant in March and made such a stern statement, I was proud of him being able to say that with so much conviction," said broadcaster Buck Martinez, a former major league player and manager. "Myself, like everyone else, kind of thought this is a guy who is really trying to clear his name. And then to have this, I think more than anything I am disappointed for the game."
A confidentiality agreement between baseball and the players' union requires that the testing procedure and the appeal process remain private. Palmeiro said he could not reveal when he was informed of testing positive or what substance he took.
"What are you covering up?" Martinez said. "I thought we had this in the open. I thought we were trying to clean the game up and we want you to trust us when you're not giving us the time frame. Did they have this before he had 3,000 hits? If that's the case, they're turning their head again, like they did in '98."
Palmeiro's worthiness for the Hall of Fame will also likely be questioned. Those who had already been skeptical of the first baseman's merits now have more to ponder when his name appears on the ballot after he retires.
"I'm more torn now because he told Congress he never used steroids," said Chicago Tribune baseball writer Mark Gonzales, a Hall of Fame voter.
Palmeiro said he won't concern himself with his Hall of Fame status.
"That's really not for me to determine," Palmeiro said. "I hope that people look at my whole career and appreciate that I've given everything that I've got. I respect the game. I respect my opponents. I respect the players that came before me. I respect the Hall of Fame. If they think I'm worthy enough, I would be very honored. If they don't, I gave it all that I had for this game."
Palmeiro said his positive test result won't affect his decision on whether to play next season. The Orioles said they have not even begun to think whether Palmeiro will be offered a contract. Instead Baltimore officials appeared simply stunned.
"I think the guys were taken back by it," Orioles Manager Lee Mazzilli said. "They were saddened. I think they were a little disappointed at what happened. They all wanted to give their support to Raffy."
Orioles owner Peter Angelos expressed his support.
"I have known Rafael Palmeiro for many years," Angelos said. "He is a fine person, a great player and a true asset to his community. I know from personal experience that his accomplishments are due to hard work and his dedication to the game. I know that Rafael will accept the penalty under baseball's important drug policy and that he will return and be a productive member of the Orioles."
For his part, Palmeiro simply asked fans for understanding.
"I hope I can have their support and understanding of what I'm going through because this is the toughest time I've gone through in my life with anything that I've dealt with," Palmeiro said. "Hopefully they can accept me and let me come back and finish the season and help them get back to the playoffs."