First baseman Rafael Palmeiro, who spent the past 10 days in exile after testing positive for steroids, returned to the Baltimore Orioles on Thursday but was not in the starting lineup and may not be for a couple of days. In his first public comments since the suspension, Palmeiro expressed regret over the controversy and joy over his return, but he did not speak openly about his steroid use, citing an ongoing congressional investigation.
"Well, I want to say that I'm happy to be back," Palmeiro told a large gathering of media members in the Orioles' dugout prior to Thursday's game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. "I'm anxious to get back on the field and playing the game that I love very much. It's been a tough time for me and my family over the last couple of weeks and at this time I've been instructed by my attorneys not to comment on the situation. The time will come soon, hopefully, that I can explain my situation."
The House Government Reform Committee is investigating whether Palmeiro committed perjury when he testified in March that he had never used steroids.
"Congress is going over all the stuff right now and I am just going to wait on that situation to be over with," Palmeiro said.
Not once did Palmeiro appear agitated or upset or annoyed at the presence of such a large media contingent. At several points, Palmeiro stopped and greeted reporters who regularly follow the team.
"I thought he would look nervous," said one teammate. "But he looks calm. He looked normal."
Palmeiro fielded ground balls for several minutes prior to taking batting practice. He did not appear rusty, handling most ground balls with ease. At about 5:10 p.m., Palmeiro retreated to the dugout and walked into the clubhouse as cameras flashed. Several minutes later, he emerged with team leader Miguel Tejada at his side. Tejada put his right arm around Palmeiro and walked him to the team's stretch area, where he lifted Palmeiro's arm like a referee lifts the arm of a winning boxer in a prize fight.
If there is any objection to Palmeiro rejoining the team, it wasn't expressed openly by his teammates, who gladly welcomed him back.
"It's a distraction when you guys come up and ask about it every day," second baseman Brian Roberts told a reporter. "Otherwise, no."
The ballpark was mostly empty when Palmeiro took batting from approximately 5:20 to 5:30 p.m. A lone sign behind the dugout read, "Welcome Back Raffy." Otherwise, it was just an ordinary batting practice session. Afterward, Palmeiro signed autographs for several minutes.
"As far as the fans, you know these are great fans," Palmeiro said. "I've always enjoyed playing here. These are the best fans in the game and I hope they can understand my situation right now and I'll accept however they react."
In the bottom of the eighth inning of Thursday night's game against the Devil Rays, a large group of fans at Oriole Park at Camden Yards chanted, "We want Raffy!"
Said Palmeiro: "It was good, I really appreciated that. I appreciated the fans cheering and supporting me."
It was uncertain how Palmeiro would react to members of the media when the clubhouse doors opened at 3:30 p.m. Four Orioles public relations staffers cornered the clubhouse and kept people away from Palmeiro's locker. One young male intern stood almost directly in front of Palmeiro's locker with his arms crossed and a stolid look. It appeared Palmeiro would not say a word. But less than an hour later, Palmeiro addressed the media.
"It was just good to see the team," Palmeiro said. "I've been down for a while. And when you are in a team situation and you get to be with a bunch of guys for eight months, it's tough. I've been playing baseball now for 20 years and this is all that I have done. This is all I know. It was tough being away. But it was good to see them. They are happy that I am back. And they're anxious for me to get back on the field."
Just when Palmeiro will get back on the field is uncertain. Interim manager Sam Perlozzo said it could take a few days. Palmeiro said he was unsure when he would be ready.
"I'm sure in the next couple of days I will get back out there on the field," Palmeiro said. "I haven't really done much, baseball-wise."
Perlozzo said he spoke to the team on Wednesday for about two minutes regarding Palmeiro. He did not think the situation would become a distraction.
"Our thing is that when we're inside the clubhouse we are a team together," Perlozzo said. "That's what I addressed the club with. And that's what we're going to do. When you walk out the door you can do whatever you want, but when you're in here you're together as a team."