Failed drug test dims Palmeiro’s star power

A few weeks ago, Rafael Palmeiro was the talk of the baseball world. On Friday, July 15, just two days into the second half of the season, Palmeiro launched a double into the corner in Safeco Field in Seattle to join the 3000-hit club. More impressively, at the time, he also joined Hank Aaron, Eddie Murray, and Willie Mays as the fourth member of the 3000-hit, 500-home run club.

Today, though, Palmeiro is the latest and most prominent poster boy for baseball’s ongoing steroid scandal. Shortly before this afternoon’s Orioles-White Sox game, Palmeiro was suspended 10 games for violating baseball’s drug policy.

While the policy does not allow MLB or Palmeiro to disclose the banned substance for which he tested positive, the slugger denied that he knowingly took anything illicit. “Although I never intentionally put a banned substance into my body,” he said, in a statement, “the independent arbitrator ruled that I had to be suspended under the terms of the program.”

For baseball, Palmeiro’s failed drug test for whatever substance he claims he did not know he took couldn’t have come at a worse time. Just 24 hours ago, baseball was reveling in its most celebratory of occasions as Wade Boggs and Ryne Sandberg, two guys who supposedly “played the game right” and would have been accused at most of eating too much chicken, were inducted into the Hall of Fame. These two players, with a combined 400 career home runs in over 17,000 at-bats, would never be suspected of steroid use. It was clean baseball, denying the tainted era of the last few decades.

At the same time, the old poster boy for steroids, Yankees slugger Jason Giambi, was wrapping up a month in which he hit .355 with a .524 OBP, a .974 slugging percentage, and 14 home runs. Giambi, if he were truly clean, showed to the world that steroids don’t help someone who can already hit for power and get on base. They just cause problems.

Now, it’s a new week, and Rafael Palmeiro, the Orioles, and baseball are once again confronted with something that just causes problems. For Palmeiro, on a day-to-day basis, he has let down his team and his teammates. The Orioles are currently clinging to their Wild Card dreams. Their loss today dropped them a season-high three games under .500 and Baseball Prospectus’ Playoff Odds Report has the Orioles making the playoffs only 3 percent of the time when the remainder of the season is simulated one million times.

Now, as the Orioles face 10 games against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, the Texas Rangers, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, they will be without their power-hitting first baseman. Palmeiro, hitting .280/.354/.472 this year with 18 home runs, has been a key cog in the Orioles’ lineup. For 10 days that will make or break the Orioles’ season, Rafael Palmeiro will watch from the stands.

For Rafael Palmeiro, the baseball player, this suspension raises all sorts of questions about the legitimacy of his past accomplishments. Palmeiro, named earlier this year in Jose Canseco’s infamous book, has long denied any steroid use. His is a career .289/.371/.516 hitter with 569 home runs, good for ninth all-time. His 1834 RBIs rank him 14th all-time. While many analysts have long questioned his Hall of Fame credentials because he never had those great seasons, the MVP awards, of the championship rings, it’s hard to deny that Palmeiro should be inducted into the shrine in Cooperstown.

Now, though, Palmeiro’s accomplishments will inevitably be cast into doubt. Did he legitimately hit those 500 home runs? Would he have been this good without steroids? Does this drug suspension negate his accomplishments and effectively lessen his career in the eyes of Hall of Fame voters? Right now, there is no way to answer these questions without knowing more about what Palmeiro was found to have taken. But these are issues Palmeiro and baseball analysts will be grappling with well beyond the 1 a.m. SportsCenter tonight.

Then, finally, there are ramification for Rafael Palmeiro, the one-time Congressional ally in the fight against performance-enhancing drugs. As BP’s Will Carroll notes in an Under the Knife Special, Palmeiro may or may not have perjured himself in March when he denied having taken steroids at the time. Conveniently, in March, he left out the word “intentionally.” He simply said he had never and never would use steroids. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the man behind the hearings, was unavailable for comment, but I am sure Congress won’t miss this opportunity to further explore steroid use in baseball.

In the end, baseball fans, analysts, players, commentators, and officials are left with the words of Rafael Palmeiro. “I have never intentionally used steroids. Never. Ever. Period,” he said this week. Only time will tell whether this is indeed the truth and what the future, kind so far to Jason Giambi who never tested positive for drug use but was heavily involved in the BALCO leak, will bring for Rafael Palmeiro.

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