That swing. In all my years as a baseball fan, the two sweetest swings I ever remember seeing live belonged to Ken Griffey Jr. and Rafael Palmeiro. Sitting down to write this piece, I thought maybe, just maybe, orange-colored nostalgia was clouding my memory. Yet MLB writers agree that Palmeiro’s swing ranks among the top-10 sweetest of all time. And, wouldn’t you know, twenty-five or so years later, the Palmeiro swing still looks as smooth on tape as memory had it.
Here he is in April 1997, demolishing a pair of unfortunate offerings from Rangers pitching, for two Eutaw Street home runs in a single game.
Here is Palmeiro again in 1997, blitzing a down-and-in fastball from Yankees reliever Jim Mecir onto the flagpole court for a walk-off home run in the tenth inning.
The Palmeiro swing was a thing of beauty. And what he did with it was powerfully impressive. In 20 seasons spread between the Cubs (three), the Rangers (ten) and the Orioles (seven), Palmeiro put together a .288 batting average, a .515 career slugging rate, 569 home runs, 1835 RBIs and 3,020 hits. He was worth 71.9 wins above replacement (24.4 for the Orioles, 24th on the all-time club list for position players). A four-time All Star, Palmeiro also won three Gold Gloves at first base.
Bill James, the granddaddy of baseball statistics, once invented something called a “Similarity Score” between players over the length of a career. Say Player 1 is your central reference point. You take a second player, start him with 1000 points, and subtract a point based on his statistical difference from Player 1 in categories like total at-bats, runs scored, hits, home runs, strikeouts, slugging, and so on. The higher Player 2’s score, the more he resembles Player 1. In MLB history, the players who most closely resembled Rafael Palmeiro are:
- Frank Robinson (887.6) *
- Eddie Murray (885.2) *
- Ken Griffey Jr. (861.9) *
- Dave Winfield (836.9) *
- Albert Pujols (834.1)
- Reggie Jackson (825.6) *
- Gary Sheffield (821.2)
- David Ortiz (816.6)
- Mel Ott (814.1) *
- Miguel Cabrera (801.2)
Those asterisks represent Hall of Famers. Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols, once they retire, will be shoo-ins to join. Ortiz probably is, too. Rafael Palmeiro, on the other hand, is not a Hall of Famer (or even in the Orioles team Hall of Fame). That swing. Those stats. Those … lapses in judgment? Alas, what could have been.
That many of Palmeiro’s best seasons came during the Orioles’ glory days of the late-‘90s is no coincidence. In the strike-shortened 1994, Palmeiro’s first with the team, the Johnny Oates-led Orioles finished 63-49, two games short of a Wild Card, had there been one that year. Palmeiro finished with a .319 average and 76 RBIs in 111 games. In 1995, turmoil in the front office led to a sub-.500 team finish, but Palmeiro’s bat exploded: he hit .310 with 39 home runs, 104 RBIs and slugged .963.
Palmeiro’s stats were even flashier in 1996, the first of Davey Johnson’s two superlative seasons back with the Orioles as manager. That Palmeiro managed to hit .289 that season with 142 RBIs and 181 hits and not win the MVP (Juan González did) or Silver Slugger award (Mark McGwire did, with a .317/.467/.730 slash line) shows just how inflated batting totals were in the homer-happy ‘90s. But it didn’t make Palmeiro any less important to the playoff-bound Orioles, who beat the Indians in the ALDS before falling to New York in the ALCS. The 1997 season saw the Orioles’ second straight ALCS appearance, and last playoff appearance until 2012, but for Palmeiro, it kicked off three Gold Glove-winning seasons in a row.
After turning down a five-year, $50 million offer from owner Peter Angelos to return to Texas in 1999, Palmeiro came back to the Orioles in 2004, in his words, “a little bit older, a little bit wiser” and hoping to retire, and enter the Hall of Fame, as an Oriole. His power dropped off in his last two seasons, but he still racked up his 3000th hit on July 15 and his 569th and final home run on July 30. Two days later, he was suspended for 10 games after testing positive for steroids.
It was a tragic end to a brilliant career, compounded by a thoroughly unpleasant performance at a congressional hearing on steroids in March 2005. Jabbing his finger at lawmakers, Palmeiro pointedly insisted: “I have never used steroids. Period.” (Apparently, the theatrics were Palmeiro’s lawyer’s idea.) The MLB was unconvinced, especially after a May drug test showed anabolic steroids in Palmeiro’s system, making him the first baseball superstar to test positive for PEDs. Palmeiro insisted that that positive result was due to a tainted B12-vitamin shot given to him by teammate Miguel Tejada, but the damage was done. Baltimore fans turned on him after the suspension, and the team let him go, in the bargain seemingly sinking his Hall of Fame chances. Palmeiro received just 11% of BBWAA votes in 2011 and dropped off the ballot in 2014.
Whatever your thoughts on the evils of steroids, Palmeiro still has an outside chance to make it to the Hall through the Veterans Committee in 2026. It may not be such a long shot, says USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, with admitted steroid users Jeff Bagwell and Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez’s recent inductions supposed evidence of softening public sentiment. How BBWAA writers treat the hard cases of Alex Rodriguez, another tainted member of the 3000 hits-500 home runs club who is HOF-eligible in 2021, plus Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, entering their final two years of eligibility, may be a test balloon for Palmeiro.
For now, instead of Cooperstown, the preternaturally talented Palmeiro sits in the company of players who stood tall above the rest on the field, but whose moral lapses off of it—Pete Rose, Mark McGwire, José Canseco, Sammy Sosa—shut them out of the pantheon of baseball greats. As an Orioles fan, it was as much a joy to watch Palmeiro play as it’s been a disappointment to see his legacy tarnished in retirement.