Palmeiro is quietly legendary
Raffy has the respect of ex-teammates and opponents
Rafael Palmeiro, after spending a career on the periphery of greatness, just crossed over the line.After 20 seasons in the shadows -- some of them self-perceived -- he has hit the floodlights. After two decades of muted excellence, MLB and its fans are giving him a shout-out. There is no more denying Raffy. He has accomplished the rarest extended offensive feat in a sport in which seasons are marathons and careers examples of the theory of diminishing returns. Five hundred home runs and 3,000 hits are not just numbers. They are pillars of the baseball pantheon in which Palmeiro will take up permanent residence five years after he removes his last uniform. There are many ways to assess the significance of 500-3,000, bookends previously reached only by Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Eddie Murray. But this is the best: The 22 other Major Leaguers to collect 3,000 hits averaged 222 homers. The 13 other Major Leaguers to collect 500 homers averaged 2,465 hits. Those lists represent a cross-section of the greatest, most storied, most celebrated players in history - and they couldn't reach the smash-and-dash heights where Palmeiro now soars. Oh, a few may appear to have come close. Among the 3,000-hit men, Stan Musial had 475 homers, Dave Winfield 465 and Carl Yastrzemski 452. The 500-homer clubbies include Frank Robinson (2,943 hits). However, these cases weren't the same as Willie Mays declaring upon seeing adulation heaped on Jose Conseco for the first 40-40 season, "If I'd known it was such a big deal, I would've done it." When they took their last, tired swings, Musial was 42, Winfield 44, Yaz 44 and F. Robby an occasionally DH-ing 41-year-old player-manager. At 40, Palmeiro is a hot bat for a Baltimore club persistently stalking one of the most dramatic storylines in MLB's recent seasons. Driving a wedge into the Boston-New York American League East block is only part of it. How about driving to get a pair of future legends nearing the sunset, Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa, into their first World Series? Lack of that October exposure has absolutely thrown a cloak over Palmeiro's career, and helps to bring into focus a frequent lament by standout players that tends to resonate insincere.
"Getting that ring -- that's the only reason you play the game," they say. The game has already brought them wealth and their families carefree lives, so what on earth could they possibly be talking about?This is what they are talking about. Without October glory, personal accomplishments wither. You become a trivial blip in the parade. They are talking about not wanting to be Rafael Palmeiro, who has spent most of his life aching for people to realize something so evident: That he is a helluva baseball player, one of the greatest ever. Don't think he has been overlooked, his excellence taken for granted, a Stealth Superstar in the game's arsenal? Mays, Aaron, Murray totaled 153 All-Star at-bats in 54 appearances, won three MVP awards and combined for 20 other Top 5 finishes in MVP voting. Palmeiro has had four All-Star at-bats and one fifth-place finish in the MVP vote. This is a weighty burden to haul for two decades, one of the heaviest imaginable. It can temper your highs, aggravate your lows, play with your mind. So there are reasons Palmeiro has never played with the outward joy his skills should release. He never has trouble getting the bat off his shoulder -- it's easier to sneak a carrot by a rabbit than a called third strike by Raffy - but that chip is another matter. Dr. Phil could have a field day with Palmeiro. He has often been people's Plan B on his way to the A list, and the experiences have stung him. And, yes, his inner demons do have a name: Will Clark. Their twisted conflict is of the type which has been the muse of great playwrights. Every step of Palmeiro's way, Clark has been there as a tacit taunt. How far back do you wish to revert? Both were BMOCs at Mississippi State, but Clark got the 1985 Golden Spikes, college baseball's version of the Heisman Trophy emblematic of the country's best. In that June's First-Player Draft, Clark went No. 2 and Palmeiro No. 22. Clark reached the Giants (debuting on April 8, 1986) five months before Palmeiro reached the Cubs. Then, as Major Leaguers, their silently intense rivalry played out in the daily box scores, with Clark -- Will the Thrill, with that infamous Nuschler look -- usually on top. Palmeiro both conceded and understood fate's scales. "Will and I have never really been friends," he once said, "but I respect him as a player. Will has always received more recognition than I have because he exploded on the scene right from the start of his career, and I just keep rumbling along." Then, their fortunes appeared to finally turn in 1993, the free agency "walk" season for both. With the Rangers, Palmeiro hit .295 with 37 homers and 105 RBIs -- all career highs. Clark, fighting injuries, put up a fraction of those numbers with the Giants. But, that winter, Texas chose to sign Clark. Palmeiro surfaced in Baltimore on the rebound, but he was cut deep. A former teammate, recalling that episode, recently told ESPN.com, "That was the turning point for Raffy. When that happened, Raffy said, 'I'll show them. I'll show everyone.'" How does the saying go? The best revenge is living longer? Five years after Will Clark limped out of the game -- with 2,176 hits and 284 home runs, by the way -- Rafael Palmeiro is still living large. Soon, he will be living forever. And generations will read his Cooperstown plaque with widening eyes. "People will take a step back and say, 'Wow. This guy is incredible," says Alex Rodriguez. "Once he's in the Hall of Fame, people will realize how great he is."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.