Up until last month, Rafael Palmeiro distinguished himself as a future Hall of Famer without being especially famous, an all-time baseball great without ever being a great of a specific time. Since coming up with the Chicago Cubs in 1986, he's reached the top 10 in either league's MVP voting only three times, topping out at fifth in 1999.
But he kept sneaking up on the Hall of Fame benchmarks. In 2003, with the Texas Rangers, Palmeiro reached 500 homers. Asked if the milestone clinched Palmiero's Hall of Fame inclusion, one voter said, "Never heard of him." Ball fans by then knew the facts of home run inflation, figuring Palmeiro came in on the tailwind.
Then Palmeiro reached 3,000 hits on July 15, and the engravers started working on his plaque. Anyone can figure the Steroid Era somehow factored into his approach to 600 homers, but 3,000 hits isn't a feat of muscle. What could stand in Palmeiro's way?
Now we know.
In less than a month, Palmeiro's name has journeyed all the way from invisibility to fame to infamy. That's life in sports these days, 20 seasons turned inside-out, upside-down in 20 days.
One day, Palmeiro is just another guy, a lot better than average but not truly one of the greats. The next day, he's compared with Willie Mays, Henry Aaron and Eddie Murray, since they're the only four players with 500 homers and 3,000 hits. President Bush calls him with congratulations.
Within days, he's Public Enemy No. 25, suddenly compared with Enron executives and Oliver North, who've been suspected of lying to Congress. Palmeiro might have achieved the unimaginable — making a truth teller out of Jose Canseco.
In a flash, the pointed finger has become the new earmark of lying in America. Bill Clinton said, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." Rafael Palmeiro said, "I have never used steroids. Period." Both made their remarks with pointed fingers.
But Palmeiro pointed his finger at a House panel investigating steroid use in baseball, as if to chastise the chamber for being so presumptuous to ask. Now, it appears, Palmiero's presumption went well beyond finger pointing.
Palmeiro is serving a 10-game suspension since the news on Aug. 2 that he tested positive for steroids. In response to his denial that he intentionally used steroids, a Major League Baseball official released the details of Palmeiro's test to The New York Times, just so there will be no misunderstanding. And it's hard to misunderstand this one — or understand it — because the steroid found in Palmeiro's system is stanozolol, a potent substance not found in dietary supplements.
In other words, it has to be injected or ingested, and intentionally so, unless Canseco is a complete fool. Which is a live question.
"Why would I do this in a year when I went in front of Congress and I testified and I told the truth?," Palmeiro asked reporters when news broke of his suspension. "Why would I do this during a season where I was going to get to 3,000 hits? It just makes no sense. ... I'm not a crazy person."
Palmeiro must have figured the reporters knew the answer. But no one knows the answer if he doesn't. Now Congress wants answers, initiating a probe to determine if Palmiero committed perjury.
All the reporters know is whether they think Palmeiro will belong in the Hall of Fame. And lots of voters say they'll still vote for him, because steroids weren't prohibited by MLB for much of his career, it's now widely suspected lots of players in his era took them and we don't really know for the most part who did and who didn't.
Is that a dodge? Steroid use was, is and will be a crime in America, which happens to be the country in which major league baseball is played. And we know Palmeiro has taken them. We just don't know exactly when.
Here's a better idea. Let's wait five years and decide on Palmeiro when he's eligible for induction. We've just now begun to take steroids in baseball seriously, as a 10-game suspension confirms. Commissioner Bud Selig now wants 50-game suspensions for first offenses, and the U.S. Senate will conduct hearings in the fall concerning legislation that would require two-year suspensions for steroid offenders in team sports. In five years, we'll know a lot more.
Ordinarily, the pursuit of 3,000 career hits is a baseball celebration. But Major League Baseball knew Palmeiro had tested positive, pending appeal, while he approached the milestone. The central office ended up buying full-page congratulatory newspaper ads, trying to keep up the front.
Since news of Palmeiro's positive test went public, it's as if his entire career has been discredited. One of his former clubs, the Rangers, cancelled an observance last weekend and Palmeiro has asked the Orioles to call off a celebration at Camden Yards.
The silver lining for baseball is a new understanding about the depth and breadth of steroid use, now that a player of historic achievement has been nabbed under the new testing policy. The fact that it happened to Palmeiro after he pointed his finger at a Congressional panel clouds him not simply as a suspected liar but as a fool.
The cloud over baseball is even more ominous, however. It's doubtful the weather will ever break over the past 10 years of broken records. Baseball's only chance is to save its future. Perhaps the Palmeiro episode will help with that.
Rafael Palmeiro is a man of pleasantry and charity. But a big "kick me" sign is pasted to his back, and he put it there.
Once and for all, in case any doubt arose in the past few weeks, we also know Palmeiro really doesn't belong in the same company as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. After all, McGwire kept his mouth shut before Congress and Sosa grunted out short answers just to be safe.
Palmeiro decided to put on a show. And whether the show was tragedy or comedy, it's really worse than either. It's infamy.