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Raffy Joins the Club
Josh Elliott
May 19, 2003
The Rangers' Rafael Palmeiro celebrated his 500th home run—and accepted long overdue recognition—in typically understated fashion
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May 19, 2003

Raffy Joins The Club

The Rangers' Rafael Palmeiro celebrated his 500th home run—and accepted long overdue recognition—in typically understated fashion

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The Power ELITE
Rafael Palmeiro is the only member of the 500-home-run club without a league homer title to his credit, and one of the few without an MVP award. However, he stacks up well in categories in which consistency counts the most, such as seasons with 35 or more homers (he ranks sixth among the club's 19 members) and career hits (seventh).

PLAYER

HRs

SEASONS

HR TITLES

MVP AWARDS*

35-HR SEASONS

HITS

Hank Aaron

755

23

4

1

11

3,771

Babe Ruth

714

22

12

0

12

2,873

Willie Mays

660

22

4

2

10

3,283

Barry Bonds?

623

18

2

5

8

2,489

Frank Robinson

586

21

1

2

5

2,943

Mark McGwire

583

16

4

0

8

1,626

Harmon Killebrew

573

22

6

1

9

2,086

Reggie Jackson

563

21

4

1

4

2,584

Mike Schmidt

548

18

8

3

11

2,234

Mickey Mantle

536

18

4

3

6

2,415

Jimmie Foxx

534

20

4

3

10

2,646

Willie McCovey

521

22

3

1

6

2,211

Ted Williams

521

19

4

2

5

2,654

Ernie Banks

512

19

2

2

6

2,583

Eddie Mathews

512

17

2

0

6

2,315

Mel Ott

511

22

6

0

4

2,876

Sammy Sosa?

505

16

2

1

8

1,992

Eddie Murray

504

21

1

0

0

3,255

Rafael Palmeiro?

500

18

0

0

9

2,665

*MVP first awarded in 1931 ( Ruth played 1914-35, Foxx 1925-45, Ott 1926-47) ?active (stats through Sunday)

That Damn banner sure wasn't helping. On May 6, when the Texas Rangers opened a six-game home stand against the Toronto Blue Jays and the Cleveland Indians, the massive sign hanging beyond the centerfield wall reminded everyone at The Ballpark in Arlington that one of the Rangers was on history's doorstep: 498 HR RAFAEL PALMEIRO. But Palmeiro wasn't feeling comfortable at the plate. Three days earlier he had been hit on the right elbow by a pitch from Cleveland Indians righthander Jake Westbrook, and he had been relegated to pinch-hitting duty for one game. Back in the lineup, Palmeiro went 0 for 11 and then finally hit number 499 last Thursday, off Blue Jays reliever Trever Miller. After he failed to connect on Friday and Saturday against the Indians, it was clear that the 38-year-old first baseman, whose swing under normal circumstances is as picturesque as any in the game, was pressing.

"From the time [the home stand started], I knew I had to hit two home runs," Palmeiro said of the pressure to reach 500 in his home ballpark. "I tried not to think about it too much, but it's hard not to when you have a sign that's about 600 feet long staring at you from behind the pitcher's release point." After 10 years of quietly rolling out statistically grand seasons as if from an assembly line—yet never being counted among baseball's elite—Palmeiro had his greatest achievement staring him in the face.

Then, on a 3-and-2 count with two outs in the bottom of the seventh inning on Sunday, Palmeiro, in his final at bat of the home stand, turned on a fastball from Cleveland righthander Dave Elder and flicked it skyward down the rightfield line. For a tense moment he feared that the Ballpark's cross-winds might push the ball foul. But it stayed true, and Palmeiro became the 19th player in baseball history to hit 500 home runs.

The at bat was classic Palmeiro. On a 1-and-0 count he took an outside fastball for a strike, a pitch that he had learned to lay off in the mid-1990s when he went from being a soft, opposite-field contact hitter to a pull-hitting slugger. Palmeiro then took two balls, one barely missing away Only when Elder threw a 3-and-1 shoelace-high fastball did Palmeiro betray his anxiety, fouling off what would have been ball four. Then Elder tried to sneak in a waist-high inside fastball, the kind of mistake that the Cuban-born Palmeiro has ridden to the gates of the Hall of Fame.

Fireworks filled the clear afternoon sky, above the banner that was immediately updated to display Palmeiro's latest Coopers-town credential. In the rightfield bleachers Father John Collet, an instructor at the University of Dallas and Holy Trinity Seminary, gripped the home run ball and held fast against a mob snatching at the souvenir. (After the game Father Collet exchanged the historic ball for Palmeiro-autographed items including a baseball, a bat, a batting helmet, T-shirts and a jacket.) In a private box about a dozen Palmeiro family members, including Rafael's wife of 17 years, Lynne; his mother, Maria; and his 39-year-old brother, Rick, wept tears of joy. As their dad rounded third, Palmeiro's two sons, Patrick, 13, and Preston, 8, sprinted from the stands to the rightfield wall and removed a green tarp to reveal a logo commemorating the event.

Palmeiro saw almost none of it. He said he recalled touching first base, but "I don't remember what happened after that." Never one for batter's-box preening or dandy home run trots, Palmeiro circled the bases as he had virtually all 499 other times, head lowered and face expressionless. You'd never have guessed what he had just done, and that's how he would prefer it.

"It's not going to change who I am," he says of number 500. "I've never been a guy who does any look-at-me-stuff. I'm not fancy? He spits out the last word as if it were battery acid. "I've always taken pride in playing the game the right way. If it meant no one was really interested in me, then so be it. But I look at videos of Mantle and Maris and DiMaggio—those guys weren't flashy. I don't try to attract attention."

On the field, that is. Off it, Palmeiro's national profile is such that he is, however oddly, best known to the casual fan as a pitchman for Viagra. Notoriously tight-lipped on the subject—he was reportedly paid $2 million for the endorsement by Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company that manufactures the drug—Palmeiro simply says that he's "happy to help people with problems."

His numbers, though, deserve attention. He finished the week with a career .292 batting average, 2,666 hits, 1,600 RBIs, 1,481 runs and almost as many walks (1,163) as strikeouts (1,187). He has hit 43 or more home runs in four of the last five seasons and at least 38 for eight consecutive years, breaking Babe Ruth's big league milestone. From 1993 through 2002 his 395 home runs were the third most in baseball, trailing only Sammy Sosa's 462 and Barry Bonds's 437. Over that same span only Sosa drove in more runs (1,206) than Palmeiro (1,154), and those two share the longest current streak of 100-plus-RBI seasons (eight). If he plays three more years—as he expects to—Palmeiro, with 529 career doubles at week's end, has a good shot to join Hank Aaron as the only players with 3,000 hits, 600 doubles and 500 home runs.

Given his durability, he should make it. Palmeiro has averaged 157 games in his 14 full seasons (not including strike-shortened 1994); from 1991 to 2002 he played in more games (1,845) than any other player. Along the way the converted leftfielder developed into a three-time Gold Glove first baseman (1997 through '99). "He has been a model of consistency," says Blue Jays first baseman Carlos Delgado. "He's not loud, but every year he'll hit 40 home runs and drive in 120, and he's a Gold Glover. What else can you ask for? I'll take his career any day."

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