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After pointedly telling Congress he was clean, and joining the 3,000-hit club, Rafael Palmeiro got busted for steroids. His denials, without details, don't mean much

Rafael Palmeiro needed only to pass his random drug tests this season, likely his final one, to secure his place as a baseball immortal: one of only four players with 500 home runs and 3,000 hits; an almost-certain Hall of Famer; that finger-wagging antisteroid knight in the sharp blue suit and spring training tan who stole the show at the congressional hearings on March 17 in Washington. But like much of the baseball we have watched for the past 15 or 20 years, Palmeiro was not all that he seemed.

With the news on Monday that he was suspended for 10 days for violating baseball's performance-enhancing-drug policy, Palmeiro's reputation shattered like a porcelain vase hitting a tile floor. He acknowledged that he had tested positive for a steroid, though he did not identify the substance. He became the seventh player, and by far the most significant, to be nailed in this first season of public discipline for steroid users.

"I didn't do this intentionally," he said on a conference call.

It's the familiar excuse of the busted athlete. Call it the Flaxseed Defense in honor of Barry Bonds's leaked BALCO testimony. Palmeiro wants us to believe he has no idea how the steroids entered his body--this from someone who serves on Congress's No Tolerance Committee and plays in an era when steriod testing has never been stricter and vigilance more necessary. Palmeiro is at best incredibly naive. At worst he's duplicitous.

He is certainly being unclear. "I have no idea what he's talking about," said Gary Wadler, a New York University professor of medicine and expert on steroids in sports, when asked about the likelihood that Palmeiro accidentally ingested a steroid. By not mentioning any specifics--the supplements or medication he may have been taking; the drug he tested positive for--Palmeiro is just raising more questions. "Speculation is never good," said Wadler. "He needs to come out and say exactly what [the steroid] is."

Palmeiro's bust does underscore the integrity of the system and the level of trust between the owners and the players on the drug issue. Palmeiro tested positive weeks ago, he filed a grievance, an arbitration panel heard his testimony, and the panel (ignoring his plea of ignorance) threw out his grievance--and all of that occurred in total anonymity. Orioles owner Peter Angelos did not even learn of Palmeiro's positive test until last weekend. Baltimore manager Lee Mazzilli did not learn about it until Monday morning, hours before it was announced by Major League Baseball.

Palmeiro, however, needs to step forward with more candidness now that his use of a steroid is public knowledge. Hiding behind the joint policy between owners and players, Palmeiro chose to damage his reputation by not explaining his failed test. Worse, he whiffed on a chance to be at the forefront of steroid education, as he claimed to be when he said after his suspension, "I hope that all MLB players and kids will learn from what has happened to me."

Learn from what? We have little idea what happened to him. Was it the old "contaminated supplement" stroke of rotten luck? Not likely. The number of positive tests by Major League Baseball for nandrolone, the banned steroid typically associated with dietary supplements, dropped from 73 in 2003, when anonymous survey testing was in place, to one in 2004, when players knew they faced actual penalties. And this year the federal government made the so-called prohormones that generate positive tests for nandrolone (such as andro and 19-norandro) illegal without a prescription.

Did Palmeiro use a more hard-core steroid? Did the man whom Jose Canseco accused of injecting steroids when they were teammates with the Texas Rangers in 1992-93 only recently try the drug and have the incredible misfortune of being busted his first time using? Was his Hall of Fame-caliber résumé, built on late-career endurance more than a spectacular prime, made the least bit possible by the muscle strength and recovery benefits of steroids? The voters, come 2010 or so, have every right to ask the question.

Right now the legitimacy of Palmeiro's playing and public records are in doubt. So go ahead and speculate. Make whatever you will of that tan, self-righteous, finger-pointing fellow in the blue suit. Who knows, given the fuzziness of the era, what to truly make of the man.

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"I threw Bob Gibson a slider--and it was a good one." --BILLY BOB THORNTON Q&A, PAGE 22