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Fellow players salute Palmeiro
05/12/2003 2:15 AM ET
ARLINGTON -- Ironically, Rafael Palmeiro probably has received more attention these last few weeks for the fact that he never receives any attention.

But one thing is clear: His colleagues around the Major Leagues have known about this special batsman for quite some time.

Naturally, players around the big leagues were well aware of Palmeiro's chase for 500 homers, which ended with a three-run blast off Cleveland's David Elder in the seventh inning of Sunday's 17-10 slugfest at The Ballpark in Arlington.

If there was one consistent theme running through the reaction from players and coaches about the 19th member of the 500 Homer Club, it has to be, well, consistency.

"He's one of my best friends in the game," said Twins pitcher Kenny Rogers, who like Palmeiro came to the Rangers in 1989 and spent a total of eight seasons on the same roster with him. "I've watched him over the years be as good and as consistent as a player can be. He doesn't get nearly the credit he should for what he does."

Adds Red Sox bench coach Jerry Narron, who managed Palmeiro in Texas and was an Orioles coach while he was in Baltimore: "The biggest thing at this level is guys being consistent. He just shows what it's all about."

For many of his peers, he is going to be one of those players with few peers when it's all said and done.

Now that he's surpassed the 500-homer barrier and even at age 38 has a good shot at joining 600, there is a growing number of players who endorse Palmeiro for a shot at a bigger club -- the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.

"Rafael's a great hitter, great player and a true Hall of Famer," said White Sox slugger Frank Thomas. "He really does it all. He's one of those guys that keeps on going."

Added Angels manager Mike Scioscia: "He's an incredible player. He has hit all types of pitching for a long time and plays every day. He's a Hall of Famer, no doubt about it. And he's got some baseball left -- he doesn't seem to be slowing down much."

As far as Mariners second baseman Bret Boone is concerned, all you have to do is look at the numbers Palmeiro already has amassed and they tell the Cooperstown story.

"He definitely is a Hall of Famer," Boone said. "Besides the 500 home runs, he has other stats to back that up. How many people have done that? He has, what 1,500 ribbies (actually, exactly 1,600 RBIs after Sunday) and a .280 something career average? (Try .292 through Sunday.) I would say he is going."

Taking that a step further, Mark Grace -- who played with Palmeiro on the Cubs as both were beginning their careers -- says Palmeiro's glove work is yet another reason to believe he'll make it to Cooperstown.

Palmeiro turned himself into an excellent first baseman over the years, winning three consecutive Gold Glove Awards form 1997-99, actually winning in '99 despite playing only 28 games at first base because knee problems made him primarily a designated hitter that year.

"He's a complete player," Grace said. "When he went to Texas, he hadn't played a lot of first base. He's made himself into a very good first baseman. That's what makes him a first-ballot Hall of Famer for me -- he can beat you at the plate and in the field."

Of course, it's what he's done at the plate that's drawing notice now, and ballplayers around the country will tell you that the reason he's so special is because his swing is so incredible.

"I'm sure you'll hear it anywhere you go, but you're talking about as smooth and fluid a swing as anyone in the game," said former teammate Doug Mirabelli, now catching for Boston. "It's got to be one of the prettiest swings that's ever been in the game."

Others who have pretty left-handed swings know whereof Mirabelli speaks. The swing is the thing that got Palmeiro to 500.

"I think it says a lot about his swing," Seattle's John Olerud said. "He's not a particularly big guy. I know early in his career the knock against him was that he couldn't hit home runs. ... It is kind of funny that he now has 500."

Said the Mariners' Edgar Martinez, who has a great swing from the other side of the plate: "He has a short, smooth swing and very level swing without any flaws."

Ultimately, it's about envy. If Major League players can look at a guy's swing and wish they had it, that's about as high a compliment as a player can pay another player.

"He's always the left-handed swing you want to copy," Yankees switch-hitting catcher Jorge Posada said. "He's got a real smooth swing and he's never off balance. He's always on top of the ball. I just like watching him hit."

That swing has taken him to a level only 18 men had reached before -- the 500-homer barrier. But it just might take him to another vaunted level -- the 3,000-hit barrier.

Palmeiro stands at 2,666 after Sunday's milestone day.

"I certainly never thought he'd hit 500 homers, but I did think he'd get 3,000 hits when I first saw him," said Braves hitting coach Terry Pendleton, a former National League batting champion.

Rogers says that Palmeiro is so talented at the plate, he can pick the poison he's going to subject opposing pitchers to in a given era of his career.

"He could hit .320 or hit 45 homers," Rogers said. "He's chosen the latter right now. He wants 45 homers a year and nobody can complain. He does it year in and year out."

And in that respect he does it better than anyone in the history of the game. Palmeiro became the first hitter in baseball history to put together eight consecutive seasons of 38 or more homers, surpassing none other than Babe Ruth in that category.

Not bad for a guy who had 25 homers in parts of three seasons as he began his career with the Cubs.

"I saw him when he first came up with the Cubs, and he wasn't that kind of hitter," Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa said. "But as soon as he went to Texas, he just ... in some ways he's a lot like (Mark) McGwire. He really doesn't swing hard, but he has terrific timing. Just puts it right at the right point over and over again."

That ability has earned Palmeiro the respect of some of the best pitchers in the game.

"He has great patience and he doesn't swing at bad pitches," said Yankees lefty David Wells. "He's the most underrated hitter ever, in my opinion."

Mike Mussina, Wells' teammate in the Yanks rotation, got to know Palmeiro when the two played in Baltimore together from 1994-98, so he knows him from both sides.

"He was a great home run hitter when I played with him, but it takes more than being a good home run hitter to stay around long enough to hit 500 home runs," Mussina said. "He's kept it going, stayed healthy and he gets his at-bats. He's still got that sweet swing."

Four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux goes back even further with Palmeiro.

"I played with him in A ball," Maddux said. "I've always kept up with his career. It's neat to see something like this happen to someone you've known for so long. He's always been a great guy, someone that's easy to pull for."

As young players currently on the Rangers can tell you, Palmeiro is someone easy to emulate as well, at least in his approach to the game, even if they can't duplicate the sweet swing. But you don't have to be on his team to be impressed.

Two members of the Devil Rays who have different ties to Palmeiro have been influenced by his approach.

"His swing is so easy and smooth," said Aubrey Huff, who grew up in Dallas watching Palmeiro. "When I swing and hit a home run, it's always violent. But his swing is so easy. It's a swing I always wanted.''

Ben Grieve, meanwhile, remembers picking up Raffy's bats as a bat boy for the Rangers when his father, Tom Grieve, was general manager of the Rangers.

"He's amazing," Ben Grieve said. "It seems like he hits 40 home runs every year. He never has a year when he drops off."

There's a word for that.

"The huge word is consistency," said Terry Francona, the bench coach with the A's who held the same spot with the Rangers.

"He's been doing it for about 800 years," said the Reds' Ken Griffey Jr.

That might be an exaggeration, but some of his colleagues aren't exactly surprised that he's been doing it as long as he has been.

"He's shown what you can do when you take care of yourself," said the Orioles' B.J. Surhoff.

It doesn't happen by accident.

"He works extremely hard," Narron said. "I don't think people realize how hard he works at it."

According to a longtime teammate of Palmeiro's, there are a lot people who didn't follow the Rangers slugger as he quietly ascended to one of baseball's greatest milestones.

"He's one of the greatest hitters in the game, but nobody recognizes him," said catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who spent his entire career with the Rangers before moving to the Marlins this offseason. "Now when he gets ... to 500, everybody starts to recognize him.

"But he's always been a great hitter. He doesn't talk much. He just goes out and plays. Puts up his numbers on the field and keeps quiet."

It's hard to keep 500 homers quiet, which is why players all over the Majors are making noise about Rafael Palmeiro now.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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