Blue Jays 7, Orioles 6
By the time the sun had baked this game for 3 hours 33 minutes, sweating any lingering shock, betrayal and scorn from what was left of the 30,954 at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, there was an opportunity for redemption for Rafael Palmeiro. The boos that mocked the image of his face on the scoreboard during pregame introductions were gone in the ninth inning, swallowed by the breathless hope he had one more magical moment in his bat.
As for the man who chanted "liiiaaar" every time Palmeiro came to bat Sunday?
He was clapping with the rest of them with two outs, two on and the Orioles trailing the Blue Jays 7-6 when their once-beloved slugger strutted to the plate. So, too, was the man who spent the day shouting "cheaaater."
They all were cheering Palmeiro. Right up to the moment when Toronto closer Miguel Batista leaned back and fired "a pitch I knew he couldn't hit," and Palmeiro sent a fly ball sailing harmlessly into the glove of right fielder Alex Rios.
And for a moment it was like a great balloon had been deflated, the converts and the instant forgivers certain of a Hollywood ending stood silent watching Palmeiro slouch toward the dugout. Then they quietly filed out of the stadium squeezed empty of emotion on the day Palmeiro returned to a game after his steroid suspension.
Afterward, Palmeiro similarly stoic, stood by his locker in a white undershirt and faced a mob of cameras and microphones.
"I just wish we had won," he said in a dry monotone. "We had a chance to win it in the ninth and I was up at the plate. I think it would have been a good opportunity for me to get a hit and at least tie the game."
The Orioles had hoped this would be his salvation from the cloud of doubt that fell over him the moment the steroid suspension was announced on Aug. 1. His four previous trips to the plate had been forgettable -- a walk, a ground ball to short, a double play and a ground ball to second. And the home crowd had been only mildly forgiving. The mix of cheers and boos was almost even by his next-to-last at-bat in the eighth.
But as the ninth unfolded and Batista looked haggard in the nearly 100-degree heat, Orioles interim manager Sam Perlozzo glanced at his lineup card, noticed Palmeiro was due to bat seventh and had a premonition that the game would come down to the team's shamed star.
"I felt we were going to win it," he said.
Alas, there was no dreamy ending for the player whose season has turned into a nightmare since he got his 3,000th hit a month ago.
In fact, it turned out to be a bad day all around for cheaters in Orioles uniforms. Palmeiro left four men on base and Sammy Sosa (corked bat, 2003) also went 0 for 4 and allowed the winning run when he dove and missed a fly ball in right with the game tied at 4 in the top of the eighth, letting Russ Adams score from second. A play later Sosa's attempt to catch Reed Johnson at the plate was foiled when Johnson slid around catcher Javy Lopez's tag, though replays showed that Johnson didn't touch the plate.
Nonetheless, Johnson was called safe and the run proved huge when Vernon Wells singled to right, scoring Orlando Hudson to put Toronto up 7-4. Without Sosa's misplay the game might never have come down to Palmeiro. This is because in the ninth Baltimore scored two runs off Batista with a Brian Roberts double and a Lopez single.
But still down one, the Orioles left the day in the hands of their most compelling figure.
In his brief news conference after the game Palmeiro was asked little about the game itself. A reporter from ESPN peppered him with questions about the big celebration the Orioles had planned that was canceled after the suspension. "I'm sure we'll figure it out," Palmeiro said.
A man from a national publication asked him about his sons, Patrick and Preston, who were with him when he got his 3,000th hit and were in the clubhouse behind him Sunday as he spoke.
"They have always been there with me my whole career," Palmeiro said. "I'm very thankful that my wife can be here with my kids."
He said the afternoon felt like Opening Day, with his nerves the way they were. He said it was strange to miss so many days in a row -- 10 for the suspension and three to get ready -- and didn't know when he would find his swing again. A moment later a public relations man from the Orioles stepped in and stopped the questions.
"I'm sure he's glad," teammate David Newhan said. "You're back in the sanctuary that is the playing field and it's his chance to get away from everything."
Only on his first day back Rafael Palmeiro could have made his sanctuary his home again.