Texas Rangers General Manager Doug Melvin won't lie: The truth
is, he wasn't pursuing free-agent first baseman Rafael Palmeiro
last off-season. Melvin says his No. 1 priority was acquiring a
pitcher--Roger Clemens was atop his wish list and Randy Johnson
close behind--and he needed to re-sign Will Clark, the incumbent
first baseman, who was coming off one of his best seasons.
Palmeiro? Who had time for Palmeiro? Then on the morning of Dec.
1 the phone rang in Melvin's office.
"It's Rafael--Rafael Palmeiro."
For a moment Melvin didn't know what to think. Everyone figured
that the Baltimore Orioles had the inside track on re-signing
Palmeiro, who had hit .296 with a career-high 43 home runs and
121 RBIs in 1998. After all, Orioles owner Peter Angelos had the
bankroll to outbid any suitors, and, in averaging 40 homers and
119 RBIs per year for the previous four full seasons in
Baltimore, Palmeiro had earned a reputation as one of the game's
best hitters. His return was a lock, right?
"Doug, can we meet?"
An hour later they met at the Arlington Marriott, a short
distance from Melvin's office at The Ballpark in Arlington and
Palmeiro's home in Colleyville, Texas. Yes, Palmeiro told
Melvin, money is fine and dandy. Yes, he liked playing at Camden
Yards. But his home was in Texas. His family--his wife, Lynne,
and sons Patrick, nine, and Preston, four--was in Texas. If
Melvin could make a competitive bid, Palmeiro wanted to return
to the Rangers, for whom he played from 1989 through '93. "There
was one problem," recalls Melvin. "The Orioles had an offer on
the table [five years, $50 million], and Raffy felt he had to
make a decision that day. We needed to act, and quick."
Melvin, who knew he couldn't meet the Toronto Blue Jays' demands
for Clemens and had lost out of the sweepstakes for free-agent
Johnson, called team owner Tom Hicks. "I think we should sign
Palmeiro," he told Hicks. "It'll pay off." Hicks thought about
it briefly before giving Melvin the go-ahead. Melvin phoned
Palmeiro, and in minutes they agreed to a five-year, $45 million
deal. "It's one of the fastest decisions we've ever had to
make," says Melvin, whose move led to Clark's signing with
Baltimore four days later. "Maybe the best." It was certainly
the most important free-agent pickup of the year.
Along with New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, Cleveland
Indians outfielder Manny Ramirez and Boston Red Sox ace Pedro
Martinez, the 34-year-old Palmeiro, who was hitting .355 with 22
homers and 76 RBIs through Sunday, is an American League MVP
candidate. Palmeiro won Gold Gloves in each of the last two
seasons as a first baseman, but after undergoing surgeries in
February and March to repair torn cartilage in his right knee,
he became a full-time DH for Texas and had missed only two
games, neither because of the knee.
Rangers teammates credit Palmeiro's presence as the biggest
reason for their 48-39 record and five-game lead in the American
League West at the break. Palmeiro is everything the boorish
Clark was not: sensitive, quiet, careful with his words. "I
don't say things just to say them," he says. "But if I see a
situation where I can help out, I do."
Righthander Rick Helling says Palmeiro is the first hitter he
has ever discussed pitching with. Shortstop Royce Clayton says
Palmeiro can watch him swing and immediately identify the reason
Clayton is not hitting well. Palmeiro, who usually strolls
through the clubhouse with a five-pound weight at the end of his
bat, has been given the nickname El Naturale by his teammates.
"I've never seen such a perfect swing," says Clayton. "He was
born to hit."
When he reached the majors with the Chicago Cubs 13 years ago,
Palmeiro was not as even-tempered as he is today. After Chicago
traded him to the Rangers in December 1988, he blasted the Cubs
organization. In '94, when he returned to Arlington as a member
of the Orioles, Palmeiro was booed mercilessly, prompting him to
say, "The five years here were a waste." Some labeled him a
"When you're young and you get traded, things are very
dramatic," he says. "But I know that baseball is a business, and
things happen. Coming here was a business decision, but it was
something more, too. I wanted to make a good decision--not just
about money, but about life. I wanted to be happy."
Palmeiro's smile says that he is. So do his numbers.
COLOR PHOTO: JOEL ZWINK MIDAS TOUCH Palmeiro, a Gold Glove first baseman, has played the field only sparingly but hasn't lost his old form.
Win Some, Lose Some
Here are the five best free-agent signings of last off-season
and the five worst signings, based on performances through the
TEAM, POSITION CONTRACT 1999 STATS
1. Rafael Palmeiro, Rangers, 1B-DH five years, .355, 22 HRs,
$45 million 76 RBIs
Perfect match: A lefthanded pull hitter meets a 381-foot
2. John Jaha, Athletics, 1B-DH one year, .286, 19 HRs,
$850,000 56 RBIs
Oakland signed him to an incentive-free deal and ended up with
3. Roberto Alomar, Indians, 2B four years, .324, 12HRs,
$32 million 60 RBIs
Rejuvenated veteran regains his status as one of the game's top
4. Brian Jordan, Braves, RF five years, .295, 17HRs,
$40 million 71 RBIs
With their ace pitchers struggling early, where would Atlanta be
without his production?
5. Robin Ventura, Mets, 3B four years, .283, 15 HRs,
$32 million 66 RBIs
More runs batted in than his ballyhooed teammate Mike Piazza
TEAM, POSITION CONTRACT 1999 STATS
1. Mike Timlin, Orioles, RHP four years, 3-8, 5.06 ERA
Job as closer in jeopardy after blowing eight saves in 17
2. Gregg Jefferies, Tigers, DH two years, .207, five HRs,
$4.9 million 16 RBIs
Pitiful numbers for someone brought in to do nothing but hit
3. Devon White, Dodgers, CF three years, .267, seven HRs,
$12.4 million 36 RBIs
Seems to have lost a step; big drop-off in power numbers from 1998
4. Pete Schourek, Pirates, LHP two years, 2-5, 5.06 ERA
Veteran southpaw is on the trading block and nobody's interested
5. Albert Belle, Orioles, RF five years, .270, 18 HRs,
$65 million 53 RBIs
Production is down because he has hit an awful .232 with men in