"He wows you when you play with him every day," says former Baltimore Orioles teammate B.J. Surhoff. "He's very disciplined. He hits lefthanders, he hits righthanders. He has a wonderful rhythm and tempo to his swing. He makes it look so easy."
Yes, Palmeiro's lefthanded swing—the slight coil, the seamless weight transfer, those lightning-quick hands—is smooth, but the notion that hitting is easy for him, that Palmeiro rolls out of bed and into the batter's box, couldn't be less true. "His is really a high-maintenance swing," says Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. "Any double-tap swing is, because of the timing with your hands and feet. Raffy's mastered it, but only because he hones it every day."
Palmeiro's swing has four stages: 1) as the pitcher delivers, Palmeiro slides his right foot back, tapping it close to his left foot; 2) then he strides into the pitch while keeping his hands square; 3) just before he plants the right foot, he moves his hands back; 4) and finally, tapping his right foot again, he whips his hands through the zone. "It's easy off a tee, so everybody thinks they can do it," Jaramillo says. "But it's far more difficult against live pitching. Plus, Raffy had to tweak it when he started hitting for power."
To that end, in hitting drills Palmeiro swings bats affixed with five-pound weights. His off-season training includes deep-water running, to strengthen his knees and ankles against the wear that fells many sluggers. And he maintains a near-maniacal batting practice regimen, whether in the winter at the Colleyville, Texas, home he shares with Lynne and their two boys, or during the season, when he's always sneaking in an extra 10 minutes in the batting cage. "He's not like a lot of guys, who do it only to be seen doing it," Rangers manager Buck Showalter says. "Raffy's doing it on his own. He's like the Groundhog Day of greatness. But look at his numbers right now, and 500 home runs may be the fourth most impressive stat on the page. Look at his career on-base percentage [.374], for starters. For a guy with his power, that's ridiculous."
Says Texas shortstop Alex Rodriguez, "With Raffy, it's impossible to decide what he does best. Is that why he's flown under the radar? Yeah, probably."
Not entirely, though. Playing in the company of teammates such as A-Rod has contributed to Palmeiro's relative anonymity. When Palmeiro broke in with the Cubs, in 1986, Ryne Sandberg owned Chicago. When Palmeiro was traded to the Rangers before the '89 season, the star was Ruben Sierra, followed by Juan Gonzalez. After Palmeiro signed with Baltimore as a free agent in '94, he played alongside the iconic Ripken. Upon Palmeiro's return to the Rangers in '99, he and Gonzalez were eclipsed by the American League MVP season of catcher Ivan Rodriguez. Two years later A-Rod arrived.
Palmeiro also lacks the resume-enhancing accomplishments that most locks for the Hall of Fame have had. He has never won an MVP award, or even finished higher than fifth in the voting. He has never led the league in home runs or hit 50 in a season. (His high is 47, in 1999 and 2001.) He has never been voted to the All-Star Game starting lineup (and has been added to the roster only four times). He has also never played in a World Series. All of which is dismissed by Palmeiro. "I've been damn lucky to play with the teammates I've had, from Ryne and [Cubs outfielder] Andre Dawson to Cal and now Alex," he says. "They've made me a better player. I just try to use it as a positive."
He's had plenty of opportunities, beginning with his trade from the Cubs following the 1988 season—his first full year in the bigs—in which Palmeiro hit .307 but lost a spirited duel with the San Diego Padres' Tony Gwynn (.313) for the National League batting crown. Because Palmeiro had hit only eight home runs, the Cubs doubted his slugging potential and sent him to Texas in a nine-player trade that brought reliever Mitch Williams to Chicago. "I was bitter, because I felt they didn't give me a chance," Palmeiro says of the Cubs. "But it was a wake-up call for me. I realized that I'd have to produce more runs to stay in the big leagues."
Palmeiro began lifting weights and adding the muscle that would start sending his line drives over the wall in droves. "I focused on my upper body, my arms, my wrists," he says. He also stopped swinging at pitchers' first strikes, no matter how tempting. "If it wasn't the pitch I could drive to right-centerfield or maybe out the ballpark, it wasn't the pitch I wanted anymore" he says. "I started taking more pitches, looking for ones more middle-in, ones I could handle."
After his contract ran out following the 1993 season, Palmeiro was stunned when the Rangers chose to sign free-agent first baseman Will Clark, letting Palmeiro go to the Orioles. (Portending his major league fortunes, Palmeiro had played in Clark's shadow while the two were college teammates at Mississippi State.) According to Palmeiro, Texas wanted Clark's leadership, his willingness to get in teammates' faces; Palmeiro kept to himself. "But those years in Baltimore were great," he says. "It was there, when I hit my 300th home run [on July 17, 1998], that I first thought 500 was a possibility."