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Orioles looking up to veteran Palmeiro

WashPost: Team happily finds out slugger is also a leader

When the Orioles signed Miguel Tejada for $72 million, Javy Lopez for $22.5 million and 39-year-old Rafael Palmeiro for a mere $4.5 million, they knew they had a new heart of the order. What they wondered was which of the three famous free agents would be the new heart of the team -- the leader, the exemplar, The Man.

"Look at the Yankees with both Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter," said Orioles co-general manager Mike Flanagan this week. "They are struggling to find out who is the Alpha Male."

The Orioles assumed the pecking order, always ultimately defined by dugout internals and intangibles, might boil down to contract size. However, to the team's delight, their new Alpha Male is the vet who advertises Viagra.

"There are no big egos involved with those three. But we certainly wondered how it would play out," said Flanagan. "Javy's the quiet guy. Then we noticed right away that Tejada really looks up to Raffy. Miguel's the type who loves the game and just wants to play.

"So, it has turned out Raffy is finally The Man. He's very comfortable with it. He's waited long enough -- 39 years. When he was here in Baltimore [for five years], he had great numbers. But Cal Ripken got the attention. When Raffy went to Texas, I said, 'It'll be his team.' But A-Rod came along. Now it's Raffy's turn."

"He fits the bill for us," concurs Manager Lee Mazzilli. "He's a calming influence on the young guys."

Told that his bosses already see him as the club's leader, Palmeiro practically blushes with pride, but says, "This is our ballclub. We all have a little piece of it." As for Tejada and Lopez, he says, "In the off-season when we signed, I knew we'd all get along great. I knew their character, their passion for the game and their desire to win."

Since Palmeiro has hit at least 38 homers in each of the last nine seasons, his credentials for leadership are in order. But what about that birth date? His next ad may be for Grecian Formula. How long can he keep playing?

"62," said Mazzilli. "Seen his swing?"

That swing, one of the prettiest, quickest and most compact the game has ever seen, currently has a .328 batting average, a stunning ratio of 13 walks to just three strikeouts and 17 RBI in 18 games, among the league leaders. Palmeiro may only have a one-year contract with a team option for a second, but he's already become part of a bigger picture -- first baseman now, but, if he ever gets old, designated hitter. That's how fast his stock has risen.

"He hit 38 home runs last year when he turned 39," said Flanagan, "so he should hit 43 homers when he's 44."

"Easy for him to say," grins Palmeiro, "but you never know. Anything is possible."

Palmeiro would know. Born in Castro's Cuba in 1964 into a family that didn't escape to the United States until 1971, Palmeiro has always exceeded every expectation of him. Given a chance that his brother Jose, who was stuck in Cuba until 1992, never possessed, Palmeiro has driven himself to excellence. With 531 career homers, he probably already has the date for No. 600 circled in his daily planner.

"Oh, he'll get 600," Mazzilli said. "But I bet he gets 2,000 RBI, too. That's a big, big number."

"That's the big one. He's correct," Palmeiro said. "I take care of myself. I can play for a long time. To finish as an Oriole, that would be nice. My wife cried the first time we left. I would not want to wear another uniform."

Palmeiro's return to the Orioles, his emergence as the cleanup man who stabilizes those around him and even the idea that he may someday wear a bird on his hat into the Hall of Fame all seem appropriate to Flanagan. Why?

"You remember the Spotters on the Wall in Miami Stadium, don't you?" asks Flanagan.

Sure. In the '70s, the Orioles played exhibition games in a tough part of town where the streets were filled with small tornados of kids. The players dubbed them "ballpark rats." The kids never bought a ticket. Instead, they chased home runs that bounced into the Miami streets so they'd have a real ball for their own games. The most intrepid children would climb the outfield walls and light towers, risking the wrath of ushers and constables. When Eddie Murray blasted one, they'd tip their buddies where the ball was headed so they could get a jump on the other kids.

"Rafael Palmeiro was one of the Spotters on the Wall," Flanagan said.

The Orioles, it seems, have been trying to chase Palmeiro away since he was 12 years old. But he keeps coming back. Now, he's finally The Man. Who says life doesn't recognize an unfinished circle, then completes it?

Sometimes, Raffy may have come home with more than a ball.

"His brother came up to me years later and said, 'You know, I have one of your gloves,' " recalled Flanagan. "I said, 'Yeah, and I think I know where you got it.' "

The work of The Man as a boy?

Whatever he "took" then, he's given back countless times over. One reason Palmeiro received so much instant deference in the Orioles clubhouse is that, for a decade, he's been one of the most civic-minded players in the game. His Viagra commercial is actually typical. Palmeiro wants to help, especially if nobody else relishes the job.

He's been a spokesman for juvenile diabetes, works with the Lena Pope Home and a foster home recruitment program. He's campaigned for "21 Means 21," a program designed to increase awareness of underage drinking in Hispanic markets. If it's a "Teammates for Kids Foundation" that needs a volunteer, call Raffy.

Ten years ago, when Palmeiro first came to Camden Yards, he was often perceived as a self-absorbed Stat Man who kept his average on his sleeve and brooded over slumps. Not everyone improves with age but Palmeiro, as much as any contemporary player, has gotten better in all respects since he turned 30. Once, it might have seemed out of character for him to be The Man in a winning clubhouse.

Now, it's so natural that it happened without anyone noticing.

"I've always felt," said Palmeiro, "that I could."