For all the famous faces who paraded through that congressional hearing room in Washington, D.C., on St. Patrick's Day 2005, Rafael Palmeiro will go down as the most conflicted and compelling.
While Mark McGwire engaged in selective amnesia, Sammy Sosa split rhetorical hairs, Jose Canseco basked in the glow of his book sales and Curt Schilling seemed a tad, well, sanctimonious, Palmeiro came across as the personification of tradition, fair play and everything else that fans and congressional committees hold dear.
He pointed his finger for emphasis. His dark eyes flashed with sincerity. And he was emphatic in telling the House Committee on Government Reform that he had never touched a steroid. Maybe Palmeiro lacked the "wow'' factor of McGwire or Canseco, but you had to admire a legacy built so cleanly, brick by statistical brick. With his vigorous anti-juicing stance, Palmeiro seemed to embody the stated objective of the committee -- "restoring faith in America's pastime.''
Six weeks later, that brick facade collapsed under its own weight when Palmeiro tested positive for the steroid stanozolol. He joined the 3,000-hit club in July, served a 10-day suspension in August, and went hitless in his final 18 at-bats with the Baltimore Orioles before being told his services were no longer required.
The most enduring final image of Raffy at the bat features the sweet-swinging slugger with eyes locked on the pitcher, hands cocked, and plugs in his ears to drown out the taunts from the crowd. It's not exactly Gehrig-esque.
|STEROIDS: ONE YEAR AFTER|
Here's more on the wake, one year later, left by the House Committee on Government Reform's hearings on steroids in baseball:|
• Rep. Tom Davis: Questions and answers
• One Year Later: Jose Canseco
• One Year Later: Curt Schilling and Frank Thomas
• One Year Later: Sammy Sosa
• One Year Later: Mark McGwire
• SportsNation: Who will survive?
• Chat wrap: Jerry Crasnick
Palmeiro has essentially gone underground since his last appearance in uniform. In November, his lawyers released a statement in which Palmeiro claimed his positive drug test was the result of a contaminated Vitamin B-12 shot. The vial in question, Palmeiro had told the MLB Players Association, was given to him by Baltimore teammate Miguel Tejada.
In a subsequent interview with the New York Times, Palmeiro reiterated that he had been an unwitting victim. He took responsibility for his plight while continuing to insist he had never cheated. Palmeiro said he was "careless, stupid and naive'' to assume the contents of the Vitamin B-12 vial were safe.
In November, the House recommended that the Justice Department not pursue perjury charges against Palmeiro. The Government Reform Committee interviewed Palmeiro, his wife, Tejada and several other current and former teammates, as well as trainers and team physicians with both the Baltimore and Texas organizations -- in short, everyone but Palmeiro's Cub Scout den mother -- before issuing a 44-page report. But it stopped short of exonerating Palmeiro.
"We couldn't find any evidence of steroid use prior to his testimony,'' said the committee chairman, Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia. "That's not a finding of innocence, but it's a finding that we could not substantiate perjury."
Palmeiro still lives in the Dallas suburb of Colleyville, tending to his real-estate interests and monitoring the sports activities of his 16- and 11-year-old sons. According to a person close to him, Palmeiro was "devastated'' by the ridicule he encountered last summer and the realization that all his accomplishments are now tainted.
He had originally planned to make the 2005 season his last, then waffled a bit. Could he somehow amend history by coming back and playing productively at age 41, with a stringent new drug policy in place? But the right fit never materialized. Both Palmeiro and Sosa discovered that it was a bad market for tarnished sluggers with lots of baggage and diminished bat speed.
Now Palmeiro must wait five years before Hall of Fame voters determine his place in history. The early feedback isn't encouraging. In August, ESPN.com surveyed 100 writers who will have Hall votes when Palmeiro is eligible to go on the ballot. Of the 84 voters who had initially planned to vote for Palmeiro for Cooperstown, 68 now say they're in the "maybe'' or the "no'' camp.
Palmeiro might pop up for some image rehabilitation in the coming years, but the chances of his resurfacing as a coach or in the broadcast booth appear slim. On the first anniversary of baseball's St. Patrick's Day massacre, Palmeiro is content to keep his head down while Barry Bonds absorbs the brunt of the steroid-related fallout. When you leave the game in disgrace, anonymity seems like a pretty good deal.