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Sticking Up for an Old Friend

By Eddie Matz | Posted 6/4/2003

A former Orioles first baseman is headed to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. A sweet-swinging slugger who's clubbed more than 500 career home runs. And, no, I'm not talking about Eddie Murray. While it's true that ol' No. 33 will be enshrined in Cooperstown next month, I'm referring here to ol' No. 25. That's right. Rafael Palmeiro deserves to be in the Hall.

On May 11, the Texas Ranger launched his 500th long ball, and no sooner had that little white sphere cleared the Ballpark at Arlington's right-field fence, than the age-old Hall argument started to flare up. Some believe that Raffy's bust belongs in upstate New York. Others, seemingly the majority, believe that it doesn't. Or that the jury's still out. Five hundred home runs doesn't mean what it used to, they say. As a first baseman, they say, he's not even among the top five in the game at his position. His numbers have been padded, they say, with the help of the designated-hitter rule? That's what they say.

Here's what I say. I'll concede that, in today's homer-happy economy, 500 dingers doesn't buy nearly as many cheeseburgers as it once did: Prior to this season, in the entire history of baseball, only 17 men had reached such hallowed territory. Yet this season alone, we're liable to see four players join the 500 Club. Former Cub Palmeiro and current Cub Sammy Sosa have already done the deed, while Dodger first baseman Fred McGriff (487) and Reds outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. (474) are both well within striking distance.

That said, Raffy Roundtripper isn't showing any signs of slowing down. None whatsoever. Maybe it's the Viagra commercials. Maybe it's the Viagra itself. Who knows? Who cares? Whatever the case, the 38-year old lefty is swinging the bat more like a 28-year old.

Over the past five seasons, he's averaged 44 moon shots, including 47 in 2001 and 43 in 2002. This year, he's on pace to smack another 40, making it abundantly clear that he's not merely going to eke past the 500 mark, à la Eddie Matthews (512) or Mel Ott (511)--both of whom are in the Hall of Fame by the way. Instead, barring some sort of freakish injury or sudden desire to retire, Raffy's on course to break into the top 10 on the all-time home run list early next season. Doing so means he'll have leapfrogged Mickey Mantle's 536 taters. Mickey Freakin' Mantle.

You want more? I got more. Assuming Palmeiro plays at least another two seasons after this one (which he will, simply because the 3,000-hit carrot still dangles before his nose), there's a very real possibility he'll supplant O's legend Frank Robinson (586) and move into the top five. The top freakin' five. With any luck--and it wouldn't even require that much luck, seeing as how the ultradurable Palmeiro has missed only 21 games over the last seven seasons--we could be looking at the fifth member of baseball's 600-homer club, joining Aaron, Ruth, Mays, and Bonds. Those guys get all the cheeseburgers they want.

As for the not-even-among-the-best-first-basemen-of-his-era argument, I say cockenpoofle. People made the same argument about Murray as they do about Raffy--that he was never the best at his position, never the best in the game, never an MVP. And while that all may be true, there's definitely something to be said for being right up there with the best for a mighty long time. It's called consistency. So those people can keep their Jeff Bagwells and their Jim Thomes and their Todd Heltons. I'll take Palmeiro, his three consecutive Gold Gloves (1997-'99), and his androidlike production (100-plus RBIs each of the last eight seasons) any day of the week. Even on Thursday. Consistency is what fueled Murray's journey to Cooperstown, and it should do the same for Raffy.

Then there's the but-he's-a-designated-hitter-for-Pete's-sake argument, to which I again say cockenpoofle. First of all, don't blame Palmeiro, who since '99 has split time between first base and DH, for one of the stupidest rules ever to grace the pages of a sports rule book. Until baseball's brain trust comes to its senses and decides that both leagues should have the same rules, the DH will continue to be a part of baseball. It's a position just like any other position and should be treated with just as much respect, if not more--contrary to public opinion, I contend that not playing the field makes it that much harder to be a productive hitter. Using a small wooden stick to make contact with a tiny object moving at speeds of up to 100 mph is hard enough as it is. Imagine having to do it after sitting on your rump and twiddling your thumbs for 45 minutes at a stretch. That's what DHs do. That's what Palmeiro does, though not as often as you might think. Check the stats and you'll see that over the past three years, he's averaged 106 games at first base and only 49 at DH. Yet for some reason, people pigeonhole Palmeiro as just a designated hitter.

Truth is, he's not a designated hitter. He's just a really, really, really good hitter--a Hall of Fame hitter.

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