On July 29 another batch of baseball greats will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Rafael Palmeiro will be busy that day, playing for the Cleburne Railroaders against the Gary SouthShore Railcats at the Depot at Cleburne Station, Texas, if his legs hold up that long.
Palmeiro became the first Railroader to draw four walks in one game Monday at CHS Field against the St. Paul Saints. He couldn’t play Tuesday because of a sore knee and hamstring. One of six players ever to amass 3,000 hits and 500 home runs in Major League Baseball, he is attempting a comeback at age 53 in the independent league American Association, while playing alongside his son, Patrick.
One of the smoothest-swinging power hitters in baseball history, Palmeiro is batting .293 with a .926 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) that leads the team. He hit two home runs Friday.
“I feel better physically than I did when I finished playing 13 years ago,” he said. “Yeah, I’m a little bit older, but the way I judge it is my hand-eye coordination, my eyesight, the way I feel. I don’t feel overmatched. I faced a guy last night throwing 97, and I didn’t get dominated. ... I’ve passed every test except the one that has kept me on the bench, which is staying healthy.”
There is one test he never can retake, and it provides the subtext to his comeback, his summer spent rooming with his son, and his desire to return to the big leagues. Days after producing his 3,000th career hit, in 2005, Palmeiro tested positive for an anabolic steroid.
He was suspended for 10 days. He claimed the positive test stemmed from receiving a tainted vitamin B-12 shot from teammate Miguel Tejada. Tejada was suspended for 105 games in 2013 for violating the league’s drug policy.
In March 2005, Palmeiro had wagged his finger during a congressional hearing and said, “I have never used steroids. Period.”
Tuesday afternoon, Palmeiro stood in the sun in front of the visiting dugout at CHS Field and spoke amiably about his ambitions. He wants to re-prove himself and perhaps repair his reputation.
“Well, I mean, that wasn’t the goal,” he said. “But if that happens, then I’ll accept that. That will be part of the overall package that maybe it can be repaired in some cases. But I’m not worried about that. There’s nothing I can do at this point other than play and prove that I can still play at my age, and maybe some of those that thought that I cheated, they’ll think well, at the age of 53, if he can still do it, at a high level, then maybe he didn’t cheat when he was 40 or 41.”
The follow-up question arrived like a nasty slider. Does he still maintain that he tested positive because of a tainted shot?
“You’re going to ask me that? Really?” Palmeiro said, without raising his voice. “Yeah, on the record, it was a tainted shot.”
Baseball’s steroid era remains messy and challenging. There is little doubt that baseball failed to catch many drug cheats. Were some players wrongly smeared?
Without the failed test, Palmeiro would be in the Hall and probably would not be traveling around North America with players 30 years younger.
Monday, he faced Saints righthander Ryan Zimmerman, who is 22 and pitched for St. Thomas last season.
“It was pretty cool,” Zimmerman said. “I’m too young to remember him playing in the big leagues, but everybody knows who he is and what he’s done.”
Who was the most famous player he had pitched to previously?
“Probably Reggie Abercrombie,” Zimmerman said. “He plays for Winnipeg.”
As Palmeiro approached reporters before the game, he joked with a team employee, asking “Where’s my stage?”
His stage these days is the green grass of the American Association. He’s hoping to stage a redemptive drama and maybe mix in a little mystery.