It's the type of situation a cleanup hitter lives for: bases loaded, bottom of the eighth, game tied at 3. The scoreboard in Oriole Park at Camden Yards is flashing like a pinball machine, but the near-capacity crowd of 43,750 hardly needs to be cued. The Baltimore Orioles are in the midst of a division race, and the fans remember the solo home run that Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro launched onto the Eutaw Street concourse beyond rightfield three innings earlier. They're standing and rhythmically clapping as Palmeiro walks to the plate again.
Until now, it has been a typical day for Palmeiro—which is to say he went through batting practice grousing about the quality of his cuts, the feel of his bats and the offerings of the practice pitcher. "We have a kind of running joke around here," says Cal Ripken Jr. "The more Raffy complains and the worse he looks, the better he's going to do."
Considering that Palmeiro has been red-hot for two weeks, disbelief ripples through the ballpark as the Kansas City Royals decide to let their relief pitcher Hector Carrasco face Palmeiro. The crowd noise is cresting. As Carrasco's first pitch heads toward home, Baltimore outfielder Eric Davis calls, "Home run!" from the bench. Palmeiro's swing—the picture of efficiency—connects. Even in the din the clean, loud crack of the bat can be heard. As the ball begins to ride toward the rightfield concourse on a low arc, there's a nanosecond when the clapping seems to stop and everyone just looks. A few of the Orioles, unable to take the suspense, scramble up the dugout steps thinking, Could it be?
It should be the game-winner if it goes, and a victory in this game on Aug. 27 would keep the New York Yankees from cutting into Baltimore's six-game lead in the American League East. As Palmeiro takes a few uncertain steps toward first base, watching the ball grow smaller and smaller, it's impossible to tell how he's feeling. The look on his face is something between hope and relief.
It would be interesting to take Palmeiro and five guys chosen at random—say, two construction workers, a bus driver, a lawyer and a waiter—dress them alike, put them in a mock police lineup and ask a casual sports fan to pick the major league baseball star. Palmeiro's peers unfailingly count him among the best hitters in the game. But to many fans he's a familiar name they can't quite place. Even though he has nine major league seasons behind him and a few gray whiskers, the 32-year-old Palmeiro's consistent excellence is routinely overlooked. "To me, he's never gotten the respect he deserves," says Orioles second baseman Roberto Alomar. "But baseball people know what Rally does for our team."
In the space of only a year Baltimore has remade itself from a home-run-slugging crew into a pitching-and-defense club that's likely to finish with the best record in baseball and the distinction of having led the American League East wire to wire. Though Palmeiro, who led the Orioles with 31 homers and 91 RBIs at week's end, berated himself for batting only .260—he was a .298 lifetime hitter entering the season—he's the closest thing to an offensive axis that Baltimore has.
Since Aug. 15, when the Yankees drew within 3½ games of the Orioles, Palmeiro had slammed seven homers and driven in 15 runs through Sunday. It was no coincidence that Baltimore had gone on an 11-5 tear, or that by week's end it stood at 85-48 and had stretched its division lead back to 6½ games heading into this week's four-game series in New York. "When Raffy heats up like this, he's fully capable of carrying us," manager Davey Johnson says. "But you'd never know if he's going good or bad from just looking at him. Sometimes I think even he doesn't know how great he really is."
Last week Palmeiro became the first player in Orioles history to hit 30 home runs in three consecutive years. In the 1990s only three players had had more hits than Palmeiro's 1,361 through Sunday. Only four players had scored more runs than Palmeiro's 756. Only Ripken, baseball's alltime iron man, had played in more games (1,199 to Palmeiro's 1,180).
After he left the Texas Rangers as a free agent following the 1993 season and signed a five-year, $30 million deal with Baltimore. Palmeiro hit .304 and averaged 34 home runs and 107 RBIs in his first three seasons with the Orioles, including the strike-shortened '94 schedule. In '96 he slammed 39 home runs for the second straight year and drove in a career-best 142 runs, and Baltimore was the American League wild-card team. Palmeiro was rated the second-best defensive first baseman in the league (behind J.T. Snow, then with the California Angels and now with the San Francisco Giants) in a Baseball America poll of American League managers. Despite all of that Palmeiro, who hasn't been an All-Star since '91, finished sixth in the '96 MVP voting. "It's laughable," Ripken says.
Palmeiro concedes that it helps—just a little—to know that his All-Star exclusions can be attributed to the star-studded position he plays and the charisma of his competition. At 6 feet, 190 pounds, he doesn't have the imposing presence of the Chicago White Sox's 6'5", 257-pound Frank Thomas. He doesn't launch tape-measure home runs as Mark McGwire did before being traded by the Oakland A's to the St. Louis Cardinals in July. He doesn't intimidate pitchers with a malevolent glare, the way Mo Vaughn of the Boston Red Sox does. Palmeiro's at bats are controlled, almost surgical. He docs his damage with a compact, lightning-quick swing. As Royals infielder Dean Palmer says, "It always looks so effortless. But the ball just jumps off his bat."