Rafael Palmeiro was going to stroll into the Hall of Fame. It's sort of unbelievable to remember this fact, as we try to gaze back over the ruptured fault line between the Steroids Era and the Steroids Recriminations Era. There wasn't really anything to argue about, back then. He was in.
It was a very mild kind of certainty. He was not one of those larger-than-life sluggers, neither literally (listed at six foot even, 180 pounds) nor figuratively. He made the MVP list 10 times, but was never higher than fifth, and if any pitchers lay awake at night worrying about how to survive facing him, those pitchers kept it to themselves. It was agreed, as it usually is for any good lefty, that he possessed a beautiful swing, and that was about the extent of the Palmeiro poetry or mythology.
Yet in a game suddenly full of cartoonish outlier performances, that ordinariness became his greatest credential. Rafael Palmeiro was understood to embody a certain safe, old-fashioned steady excellence. He was on a smooth trajectory toward immortality: 500 homers and 3,000 hits, the two great counting-stat benchmarks reached without unseemly damage to the record books and without overstaying his productive years.
If the crusty traditionalists demanded more glory from a real first-ballot Hall of Famer, one could point to his six seasons batting over .300, his three Gold Gloves (albeit one while playing DH), his 10 seasons with more than 100 RBIs—including five seasons with a crooked number after the one, topping out at 148 in 1999. For somewhat less Paleolithic voters, there were the .371 OBP, the .515 SLG, the 585 doubles, the solid gray numerical wall constructed by playing for a long time with no significant weaknesses.
All of this involved a minimum amount of passion. It was very, very nice to have Palmeiro on your team—for the Orioles, it was a big part of the difference between contending and not contending—but he didn't stir the blood. He was a perfectly polite mercenary, moving back and forth between Baltimore and Texas depending on which team felt more like spending money on him at the moment. Someone like Harold Baines would go away and then come back, and there would be joy; it seemed as if he was returning because the team and the fans needed him. Palmeiro just changed uniforms. And kept hitting. (And, in tribute to his sheer immunity to controversy or ludicrousness, signed on as a Viagra spokesman.)
Then came 2005. The great name-throwing-around phase of the steroids panic was underway, and Jose Canseco had named Palmeiro's name. So he was subpoenaed to appear before House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (the Government Reform Committee!), and in March he took an oath and told the assembled representatives of the American people that he had never taken steroids. "I have never used steroids," he said. "Period." He wagged a finger for emphasis.
At the time, it was a footnote to Mark McGwire's tearful evasions ("I'm not here to discuss the past"). But it turned Palmeiro's PED status from subtext—here was a guy who didn't owe his greatness to gaudy numbers—to text: Here was a guy who swore he'd done it all clean.
And then, six weeks later, he tested positive for stanozolol. He collected his 3,000th hit while the test was still secret and under appeal, and then he lost the appeal and the news of his suspension came out. It was 10 days, officially, but it was a death sentence. He was a liar and a juicer—and, in his attempt to blame the test on a tainted B-12 shot from Miguel Tejada, he was a clubhouse rat.
Now everybody was passionate about Rafael Palmeiro. Nobody had to feel guilty or conflicted about it. No one mourned the loss of innocent memories about that time he hit his 43rd home run in 1998 or how he clinched the doubles crown in 1991. They booed him at home and they booed him on the road, and after a 2-for-26 slide, the Orioles told him to go away and rest and never come back.
Next season, no one called him—not one team in all of baseball would take a flier on a 41-year-old free agent coming off a 108 OPS+. He swore it had all been some sort of accident, but who cared? What kind of baseball player went around sticking any kind of needles into himself—'roids, speed, vitamins, whatever? Palmeiro was dirty.
Nothing had changed about his numbers, only the story people told themselves about the numbers. What story should we choose to tell? He was an undersized guy who went unwanted by the Cubs after putting up 41 doubles against 8 homers at age 22. He did everything a baseball classicist would hope a young, sound hitter would do, gradually building up his home-run stroke and his walks. He was durable and consistent. He had quick hands and strong wrists. What else did he have?
Beyond that one drug test, nobody knows. Palmeiro got 11 percent of the vote in his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot, ticked up to 12.6 percent, then slid to 8.8 percent last year. With the ballot ever more crowded by the denizens of PED purgatory, he could fall off entirely this year, leaving it to some future Veterans Committee or Reconciliation Commission to recognize the once-obvious fact that a 500/3,000 guy belongs in the Hall.
Why make him wait? The truth about the Steroids Era is that drawing the line between Good Baseball and Bad Baseball is a fantasy. This was already clear in 2005, when Congress was making theater of it. When the news came down of Palmeiro's suspension, as an Orioles fan, I was not disillusioned. I was surprised, because that particular team, after having peaked in June at 14 games over .500, was deep into what would be a season-ending 32-60 slide. Wow, I thought, at least Palmeiro is trying.