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This article was published 7/8/2018 (440 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
When Rafael Palmeiro’s name was announced on Monday night at Shaw Park as he stepped into the batter’s box for the Cleburne Railroaders, you could hear the whispers in the crowd.
"It can’t be that Rafael Palmeiro, can it?"
The guy who made US$90 million during his 20-year Major League Baseball career between the Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles. The guy who was a four-time MLB all-star, a three-time Gold Glove winner, and one of only six players in MLB history to amass more than 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. And yes, the guy who in 2005, testified alongside some of the biggest names in the sport in front of the United States Congress about the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, with Palmeiro, infamously pointing his finger, furiously denying having ever taken steroids.
It is that Palmeiro, and he’s in Winnipeg this week with his new team taking on the Goldeyes.
Palmeiro, now 53 and 13 years removed from his last season in the big leagues with Baltimore, isn’t back playing as some sort of publicity stunt. In fact, he shakes his head in disgust when you suggest that could be the reason why he returned to baseball after more than a decade out of the game.
"I’m too old for that kind of crap, man," Palmeiro told the Free Press before Tuesday’s game versus the Goldeyes. "I don’t need publicity, I had it for 20 years in my career."
Instead, Palmeiro, who signed with Cleburne prior to the season with his 28-year old son Patrick, is playing again because he misses the game and legitimately thinks he can still play at a major league level. And yes, he’s well aware most people think he’s crazy.
"I’m sure everyone thinks I’ve lost my mind, but my performance doesn’t show that I’m out of my mind," said Palmeiro, who’s hitting .286 with six home runs and 19 RBIs in 30 games this season. "I’m having a pretty decent year in short spurts of playing. If I’d be playing every day and in all 75 games that we’ve played already, my production would be way better than what it is. But it’s tough when I’ve been off and trying to get into the game and do well. There’s some great players in this league and my performance in the limited time that I’ve played shows that I can do it."
Palmeiro has the second-highest batting average on his team, which he showcased on Monday as he hit a bases loaded single to score two runs against the Fish. What concerns him the most isn’t his ability to still swing the bat but his ability to stay on the field.
"My goal was to see if I can get back to the big leagues and I really think that I can, I just need to stay healthy," said Palmeiro, who has played in only 30 out of 75 games for Cleburne this season due to injury. "I haven’t played consistently and that’s tough to do when you’re not playing every day, it’s hard to stay in a rhythm."
Palmeiro, who’s being used as Cleburne’s designated hitter, said he always knew he could still play but a comeback attempt wasn’t his goal until this year. The Havana, Cuba native, who now resides 30 minutes outside of Dallas, said with his sons Patrick and Preston finished college and playing minor league baseball — Preston was drafted in the seventh round by the Baltimore Orioles in 2016 MLB Draft and is playing for their single-A affiliate — now was the time to make a run at playing professionally again.
To be expected, everywhere the team travels, the only thing people want to talk about is Palmeiro’s comeback attempt and the fact he’s playing with his son. Patrick said the media attention or playing in his father’s shadow doesn’t bother him. Patrick is enjoying the experience, as it’s something he "never would’ve dreamed of or thought would be possible."
But Patrick admits it was tough growing up and seeing his dad being raked over the coals for his failed drug test in 2005, months after Palmeiro appeared in front of Congress, making him the first baseball star to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Palmeiro, who was suspended 10 games, said it was a tainted B-12 shot that caused the failed test. Palmeiro’s reputation never fully recovered, as even with Hall of Fame calibre numbers, he’s gotten nowhere near enough votes to get inducted into Cooperstown. The closest Palmeiro has come was receiving 12.6 per cent of the vote out of a necessary 75 per cent.
"It was tough at first. It’s obviously something you never want to see happen, especially as a kid, you don’t want to see that happen to your dad," said Patrick, who spent three seasons playing in the minor league system for the Chicago White Sox. "But, as years have gone on, it’s been fine. He’s still my dad, I view him as my dad and as that, not as whatever happened at the end of his career. Now that we’re playing together, I hope people will forget about that and think about what he’s doing now as a 53-year-old playing again."
Before the failed drug test, Palmeiro was regarded as a first ballot Hall of Famer. But in 2015, his name was taken off the ballot, as his vote totals dropped to 4.4 per cent of the vote, with five per cent being the magic number to stay on the ballot for another year.
"It doesn’t bug me," said Palmeiro. "That steroid thing ruined my career and affected my life personally, but I take full responsibility for that. The Hall of Fame is not at fault, they’re not the ones responsible, it’s the writers that left me off the ballot or didn’t vote for me when I was on the ballot, but it’s OK, I can live with that. I don’t have to be in the Hall of Fame. I didn’t play baseball to be in the Hall of Fame."
Palmeiro realizes he will always be remembered for his appearance in Congress, or as one of the guys with Hall of Fame credentials who are on the outside looking in due to a failed drug test. But if it was up to him, he wouldn’t be remembered for either one of those things. Instead, he’d like to be remembered for his longevity and what he accomplished as a player.
"Well, unfortunately, they’re probably going to think about steroids and the positive test that I had," admits Palmeiro, on his legacy.
"But I really did work hard throughout my whole life to get to the big leagues and to stay there. I gave everything I had to the game. I wasn’t the best, not even close to the best, but I was the best I could be. I prepared myself to be the best I could be and I showed it on the field for 20 years. I just hope people see that and not think ‘Well, he cheated the game’. You can think that, but I really busted my ass to be the best that I could be."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
Updated on Wednesday, August 8, 2018 at 8:41 AM CDT: Typos fixed.