ROSEMONT – It was almost 32 years ago when a 21-year-old left fielder named Rafael Palmeiro made his major league debut with the Chicago Cubs.
This weekend, Palmeiro is playing against the Chicago Dogs.
“Absolutely not,” Palmeiro said Saturday when asked if suiting up at the age of 53 ever crossed his mind. “When I got done playing baseball 13 years ago I never thought that I would play again. But here I am.”
Over 20 major league seasons with the Cubs, Rangers and Orioles, Palmeiro piled up some remarkable numbers.
He is one of only six players in history with 3,000 or more hits and 500 or more home runs, he hit .300 or better six times, and he ranks 17th all time with 1,835 RBI.
Those are hands-down Hall of Fame statistics, but Palmeiro has come to understand the only way he’s getting into Cooperstown is with a paid admission.
In the spring of 2005, Palmeiro infamously wagged his finger during a Congressional hearing and said: “I have never used steroids. Period.”
In early August 2005, he was suspended after testing positive for steroids and, just like that, his big-league career was over.
Palmeiro was on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time in 2011, and he got only 11 percent of the vote, well shy of the 75 percent needed for induction. When he dipped under 5 percent (4.4) in 2014, he was off the ballot.
Saying he “hated’ baseball for years, Palmeiro gradually has comes to grips with his legacy.
“It was hard,” he said. “Everything that I worked for was gone, it was destroyed. Wiped off the face of the earth. I had a hard time dealing with that, and I didn’t want to deal with baseball.
“But both of my boys play, so I just thought it was time for me to get back in. But I wanted to get back in on the playing level. I wanted to play and show that I could still do it.”
Making a comeback he describes as “crazy,” Palmeiro joined the American Association’s Cleburne Railroaders in May, and most observers thought he made the decision so he could play with his son Patrick.
“It wasn’t about that,” Palmeiro said. “It ended up that way, but that wasn’t the goal. When I decided to do this, I was doing it for myself. [Patrick] was going to go play somewhere else and it just turned out that we ended up on the same team.”
Palmeiro signed with Cleburne determined to make it back to the major leagues.
“That’s the ultimate goal, but if it doesn’t happen that’s fine,” he said. “I think it’s been a success already because I have proven that I can at least play at this level. I know the higher levels are a bit tougher, but I played a long time. My mind, my mental preparation, is still there.”
His legs are giving him trouble, and Palmeiro returned from the disabled list Friday after dealing with a sore knee and hamstring.
“We play on a hard turf at home (in Texas) and unfortunately, it’s really gotten the best of me,” Palmeiro said. “I was never on the disabled list when I played; this was the first time. But it’s understandable. I’m a bit older now.”
The smooth left-handed swing is still there, as Palmeiro showed Friday night when he hit two home runs and drove in all of Cleburne’s runs in a 5-4 victory over the Dogs in Rosemont.
Connor Root, a 25-year-old pitcher, gave up both of Palmeiro’s homers. “I missed my spots, and he punished the mistakes,” Root said.
Although he was not happy with the damage, Root won’t soon forget being taken deep twice by Palmeiro.
“There’s something special about getting a chance to pitch against a guy who’s done what he’s done, who has those kinds of numbers,” Root said. “He’s clearly able to play. He can still swing the bat. I didn’t like giving up two home runs, but if I’m going to give them up, I’d rather give them up to a guy like that.”
Palmeiro’s major league numbers are widely forgotten, but he has moved forward in his life and deserves a tip of the cap for still playing the game that paid him more than $89 million.
“I don’t blame anyone,” he said. “There is no blame. Baseball has given me everything I have, so I don’t blame anyone but myself. It was a mistake that I made, a careless mistake. That’s just how it is.”