#21 - Rafael Palmeiro, 1B (1994-1998, 2004-2005)
Did Rafael Palmeiro unknowingly take a contaminated B-12 shot that led him to test positive for a banned substance? He has always maintained so. The suspension he received for that clouds his entire career and, because he was suspended while in Baltimore, his Orioles tenure in particular.
The fact that Palmeiro hit 223 home runs for the Orioles and sits fifth on the franchise leaderboard in that category does not matter. His special moment getting his 3,000th hit while playing for the O's does not matter. The lone image conjured up in my memory of Palmeiro is when he played after his suspension and was getting booed so loud that he had things stuffed into his ears to try to block out the noise. It didn't work out very well for him; he only got two hits in his post-suspension career.
It did not have to be that way. His first Orioles tenure saw him put up a .292/.371/.545 batting line in 736 games. He never went on the disabled list. This would have been enough to have him high up on a ranking of greatest Orioles on its own. Even considering that he accumulated those numbers, including 182 home runs, in the offense-heavy mid-late 1990s, he still had a 134 OPS+ for those years, meaning he was 34% better than the average batter in OPS. In the four seasons that weren't canceled early due to a strike, he hit at least 38 home runs.
Palmeiro is one of the great players in the history of baseball. Outside of 78 plate appearances in 1986, he never had a season where he was below 100 in OPS+. Some of the best years of that consistent career were spent on the Orioles, with Palmeiro contributing to two great Orioles teams. He even came in sixth place in the AL MVP voting in 1996, although if we're being honest, he wasn't even one of the two best players on that Orioles team and voters just loved his 142 RBI, which is pretty silly of them.
There was even a taste of postseason glory for Palmeiro: he had three home runs between the doomed ALCS trips of 1996 and 1997. Perhaps, in a different universe, one where there was no suspension and no awful in those series, that is what we would remember him for. Instead, there is only the stanozolol, which stands out all the more because of his finger-wagging performance in front of Congress.
Did Palmeiro tell Congress the truth, that he had never taken steroids before? Perhaps he turned to them out of desperation as he felt his career slipping away at the beginning of the 2005 season, when he only managed a .590 OPS through his first 31 games. Maybe he really was duped by some bad vitamins, either by accident or by someone who actively meant to harm his career and reputation.
Maybe he had been taking stanozolol or something similar all along, because the five years he spent in Texas between his Orioles stints stand out against how we now understand the aging curve. From ages 34-38, Palmeiro batted .284/.390/.566, even better than he performed in Baltimore. Was he a rare physical specimen and phenomenal baseball player?
That could be, but instead we can only wonder what was real and what was not. It was little surprise when he fell off the Hall of Fame ballot after this year's results.
He could have been one of the best Orioles and one of baseball's greatest players without any reservation. Instead, he is only remembered with regret for what might have been, and really we wish that we could forget him entirely. Still, regret or not, he is an Orioles great. It's just that he could have been so much greater.