Commentary

Controversy follows Rafael Palmeiro

Slugger finished with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, but steroids stain his career

Originally Published: December 28, 2010
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

Chris Webber, then still an NBA player, took batting practice in an indoor cage with the Baltimore Orioles in the mid-1990s. Orioles outfielder Brady Anderson was asked how Webber looked at the plate. Anderson asked, "Who are you comparing him to, someone who hasn't played, or Raffy?''

Raffy is Rafael Palmeiro. And, at least to Brady Anderson, a very good hitter who now teaches hitting, when comparing the competence of a hitter, one of the ceilings was Rafael Palmeiro. So, if it's possible, forget for a moment the rest of Palmeiro's story, the steroid controversy, the wagging of the finger at Congress, the pariah, all of it. Look at the numbers, put them in a historical context and it is clear: Rafael Palmeiro is a Hall of Famer.

[+] EnlargeRafael Palmeiro
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesRafael Palmeiro hit 30 or more home runs in 10 of his 20 seasons in the major leagues.

Palmeiro hit 569 home runs, 12th most of all time. Everyone with 500 homers and who is eligible for the Hall of Fame, is in Cooperstown, except Mark McGwire. Palmeiro had 3,020 hits, 23rd all time. Everyone with 3,000 hits, and who is eligible for the Hall of Fame, is in. Palmeiro is one of only four players in history with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, joining Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Eddie Murray. Palmeiro is 15th all-time with 1,835 RBIs, more than Frank Robinson. He scored more runs than Joe Morgan. He had more doubles than Rogers Hornsby. Only eight players in history have 3,000 hits and 1,800 RBIs: Mays, Aaron, Murray, Ty Cobb, Stan Musial, Carl Yastrzemski, Dave Winfield and Palmeiro.

Palmeiro is the only player ever to hit at least 38 homers and drive in at least 100 runs nine years in a row. Using advanced metrics, specifically Bill James' win shares, Palmeiro rates at a level that usually results in a first-ballot election.

"When he got to the major leagues [in 1986], he had one of the really special swings in baseball,'' said Bobby Valentine, who was managing the Texas Rangers when Palmeiro was acquired from the Chicago Cubs before the 1989 season. "When he was with the Cubs, he didn't hit for power, but when he got to Texas and started working with [hitting coach] Tom Robson, he learned how to use his bottom half, and he went from a super swinger to a complete hitter. He became a star. He was a star. I think he should be in the Hall of Fame.''

Palmeiro finished his career with more walks than strikeouts, rare for a player of this era (from another era, Reggie Jackson had almost twice as many strikeouts as walks). Palmeiro won three Gold Gloves at first base. He was incredibly durable; in a 17-year stretch, he missed only 71 games. He made only four All-Star teams, but in several years, his competition at first base was McGwire and Frank Thomas. Palmeiro received MVP votes in 10 seasons, though he never finished above fifth. But consider this: In his 20 seasons, he played on a team with a winning record in only seven seasons, he made it to the postseason only twice (he never played in the World Series) and in only three of his 18 non-playoff seasons did he play on a team that finished closer than 10 games of first place. It should not be held against him that he played on non-contending teams for many, many years.

Compare Palmeiro among first basemen all time. He has the fifth most RBIs (and that includes Cap Anson, who played before RBIs became an official statistic until 1920), the fourth most home runs and the second most hits. Palmeiro's numbers are overwhelming, numbers that are the product partly of great timing and a beautiful swing, a swing that was so effortless, a swing almost never changed, a swing he could repeat every single at-bat.

"He had great hands,'' said Buck Showalter, who managed Palmeiro in his second tour with the Rangers (1999-2003). "He had great tempo. He was very consistent. He made it look easy.''

Anderson said, "He was super, super consistent for a really long time, he was one of the most durable players ever, and he fielded his position very well. He was a great clutch hitter. His swing was so repeatable, but I'm not sure about it being effortless. They say he didn't swing hard, but I saw him swing and miss, and you could see that he generated great bat speed. He was 6-feet and 215 pounds, but he was stronger than you think. He used the worst bats I've ever seen. They were so light, they had a hollow feeling to them. I asked him once, 'How do you ever hit 40 home runs with these things?' No one would use his bats. The only one who ever used a Rafael Palmeiro model bat was Rafael Palmeiro.''

The case for Palmeiro for the Hall of Fame is compelling, but to many voters, the case against him is just as strong. As clear as his numbers are worthy of Cooperstown, this is equally clear: There is no way he is making it into the Hall of Fame in his first year eligible, and likely he will have a difficult time making it in the maximum 15 years on the ballot.

The case for Palmeiro for the Hall of Fame is compelling, but to many voters, the case against him is just as strong. As clear as his numbers are worthy of Cooperstown, this is equally clear: There is no way he is making it into the Hall of Fame in his first year eligible, and likely he will have a difficult time making it in the maximum 15 years on the ballot. McGwire was the first test case of a player who had connections to performance-enhancing drugs, and he has not received 24 percent of the vote (75 percent is needed for induction) in any of his four years on the ballot. Palmeiro has better numbers than McGwire in some categories, but, chances are, he will get a similar vote total to that of McGwire.

The voters have spoken loudly on McGwire, and they will likely speak even louder on Palmeiro because, unlike McGwire, he didn't avoid the topic of steroids in front of Congress on March 17, 2005, when he pointed his index finger at the camera on national TV and said, under oath, that he had "never done steroids. Period.'' Palmerio's response was in response to Jose Canseco's claim that he had injected Palmeiro with steroids. And then, on Aug. 1, 2005, Palmeiro, 40, was suspended by Major League Baseball for 10 days for testing positive for steroids.

Palmeiro said he was innocent, telling The Washington Post, "Why would I do that in a year when I went in front of Congress and I testified that I told the truth? Why would I do this in a season when I was going to get to 3,000 hits? It makes no sense. I would not put my career on the line. I would not put my reputation on the line and everything that I've accomplished throughout my career. … I'm not a crazy person. I'm not stupid. This is something that's an unfortunate thing. It was an accident. I'm paying the price.''

Almost six years later, Palmeiro continues to insist that he never "knowingly" used steroids. He said that he received a vitamin B-12 shot that season from teammate Miguel Tejada, and that somehow steroids ended up in Palmeiro's system. It is a complicated and confusing case, but after he was suspended in 2005, Palmeiro played in only seven more games, went 2-for-26 and was hitless in his final 19 at-bats in the major leagues. He became a pariah, no team signed him after the 2005 season, and he has rarely been seen or heard from since. But now he's back in the news, his first time on the Hall of Fame ballot. The controversy has followed him, as it likely will for the rest of his life.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.