The rise and fall of Rafael Palmeiro

He’s sitting with a North Carolina State hat dipped downward. He’s aged well. Still handsome, the black mustache of his playing days is gone, replaced with a salt-and-pepper beard. When he stands up, his shoulders are muscular, and he looks a decade younger than 51.

At the far end of the Mexican restaurant just off the highway in a Dallas suburb, he slides into a booth.

“I could still do it,” Rafael Palmeiro says. “If I had to play a full season, I could probably hit .270, with 25 home runs. It’s between the ears, man.”

The restaurant is half-full for lunch, and the pop music on the speakers drowns out any noise. A lanky, 30-something waiter comes by every five minutes, pauses and asks if he wants water, or if he’s OK. Each time the waiter leaves, he glances back at Palmeiro.

It’s awkward, but it’s not quite celebrity gawking — he doesn’t want a photo. His curiosity is more academic. He studies him. He knows this man, of course. We all do. He was once a sure-fire baseball Hall of Famer. Now the waiter is attempting to fold together the two defining points in this man’s life and make sense of it — the 500th home run followed by his name stamped onto the wall in what was then called the Ballpark in Arlington a few miles down the road, and the announcement he was a cheater two years later.

Palmeiro smiles politely. For nearly 11 years, besides the occasional phone interview and a documentary produced about his college baseball team, he’s disappeared from public life. But now he wants to empty his soul. When the waiter leaves he turns his shoulders to face me.

“This isn’t how I envisioned my life to be.”

*****

Palmeiro’s story really begins at the point where his life, as he knew it, ended — inside Rayburn House on Capitol Hill. In March 2005, steroids had moved from a baseball problem to a national dilemma. Federal prosecutors were prepping for trial in the BALCO laboratory case, involving, among others, Barry Bonds’ personal trainer. Reports surfaced that Mark McGwire was also linked to a steroid ring during an FBI investigation in the 1990s. And a month earlier, Jose Canseco released his tell-all memoir, claiming some of the biggest names in the game — including Palmeiro — were users. So far, however — at least to the public’s knowledge — not a single star had tested positive for steroids, but trust was eroding.

Up until the day of the hearing, Palmeiro’s career had been one long direct path toward baseball immortality. Well-respected in the game and lauded for his charitable work, each year he’d scribble his goals for the upcoming season into a spiral notebook. As he entered likely his final season, the 40-year-old craved something more than statistics.

“I wanted to be celebrated for my career, the same way (Derek) Jeter was,” he says. “I’m not saying I’m on his level, but I wanted Major League Baseball to say, ‘This guy did it the right way. This is the guy we want for the face of baseball.’”

During Spring Training, he flew to Washington, D.C. from Florida, where the Orioles were based. Under oath, alongside McGwire, Curt Schilling, and Sammy Sosa, he emphatically wagged his finger (“That was one of my biggest mistakes,” he later said) and told a roomful of Congressmen, “I have never used steroids. Period.”

It wasn’t just a denial. Palmeiro, with his relatively average build, positioned himself as the antithesis to the scientifically cultivated baseball superheroes. Congressman Tom Davis, who organized the hearing, felt Palmeiro was so believable he invited him to join the newly formed Zero Tolerance committee to speak to kids about the dangers of steroids. But just six weeks later during a routine screening, Palmeiro received a call from the Players Association that he’d tested positive for stanozolol, a steroid commonly known as Winstrol and widely available underground in fitness clubs across the country.

Palmeiro was adamant he was innocent and ordered an appeal. He claimed the positive result was likely from a tainted B-12 vitamin vial injected by his wife and given to him by teammate Miguel Tejada. News of the test wasn’t released to the public, while an appeal and then a grievance was filed. Palmeiro said, according to later testimony, that he hadn’t confided in his teammates or even his wife. “I was living on an island,” he says.

He played on, marching toward a historic milestone. But a fuse had been lit. Just after the All-Star break, in a game in Seattle, he worked the count, then slapped a double the opposite way to left — it was classic Palmeiro. He became just the fourth player in major-league history — alongside Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Eddie Murray — to reach both 500 home runs and now 3,000 hits. The baseball world paused. Fans in Seattle stood to pay their respects, while his teammates rushed onto the field to encircle him.

“When I got to second, I didn’t feel like a person who just got 3,000 hits,” he says. “I felt like, OK, now I have to prepare for the destruction.”

Behind closed doors, his case was heard by an arbitration panel. The Players Association produced results of another test, three weeks after the initial sample, that came back negative (along with tests in 2003 and 2004 that were negative), and the result of a polygraph test they claimed proved his innocence. Major League Baseball’s lead counsel Francis Coonelly called Palmeiro “arrogant” and “desperate” and his denial “far-fetched.” And MLB couldn’t find a single instance of a B-12 vitamin vial tainted with stanozolol. The panel found Palmeiro’s protestations “compelling,” but without any evidence debunking the positive test his grievance was denied on Aug. 1.

With no other options before his suspension was announced, Palmeiro scrolled through his Rolodex — he was close with the two most powerful baseball men in the country. His first play was to call then-Commissioner Bud Selig. After Palmeiro’s 3,000th hit, Selig had taken out a full-page ad in USA Today: “Congratulations Raffy, you never cease to amaze us,” the ad said. Selig, of course, was intimately familiar with Palmeiro’s situation and knew well the effects that revealing a positive steroid test would have on the public’s faith in the game.

“I called Selig and begged for my life,” Palmeiro says. But Selig, Palmeiro remembers, was dismissive. “He shit on me. ‘You know, man, I can’t do anything for you. After your suspension — I’ll be here for you, anything you need,’ he told me.”

Palmeiro hung up the phone and, hoping for a stay at the 11th hour, called an old friend from his days with the Texas Rangers. George W. Bush was a minority owner during Palmeiro’s first stint with the team, and they’d talked about two weeks earlier, after Palmeiro’s 3,000th hit. He dialed the former President’s personal number.

“You and me go back a long ways,” Palmeiro remembers saying, then stating his case. “Baseball is going to suspend me on Monday, and I want you to know so you don’t look at me any differently.”

The President responded, as Palmeiro recalls, “Be strong. Whatever happens, you’ll be able to survive.” When Palmeiro put the phone down, he knew he was a dead man walking.

In the bottom of the ninth on July 31, Palmeiro hit a meaningless single to left field in a meaningless home game against the Chicago White Sox. For months, he’d quietly been consumed with trying to reverse the test and preserve his reputation. With the suspension looming, after the game, and without a word to his teammates, he collected his belongings and jetted off to Teterboro, New Jersey, with his wife Lynne and two sons, who were now aware of his situation.

When he woke up the next day, the explosion, and subsequent damage, was cataclysmic and total. Selig announced a 10-game suspension, making Palmeiro the first star to be suspended for steroids. Every news outlet in the country covered the story — and baseball fans’ reactions ranged from shock to anger.

When his suspension finished, he returned to the field on what was supposed to be Rafael Palmeiro Appreciation Day in Baltimore. Instead he was greeted with a mix of boos and chants of his name. Over the next few games, one of the great hitters of his generation was a shell of himself. “I crawled the rest of the way,” he says. “I was barely functional.” He slogged through a 2-for-26 slump, then in September, after he’d missed several games due to injury, the Orioles advised him to take the rest of the season off.

“That’s how it ended – no announcement, no celebration. That was my retirement,” he says. “I got sent home.”

*****

You’re nine years old. You step to the batter’s box at a field in Northwest Miami to face the first pitch of your life. Your dad, a Cuban exile surrounded by Cuban exiles, is leaning on the other side of the fence. Three years earlier, your parents left everything behind in Havana hoping to give you and your two brothers a better life, but the rank poverty and oppression of Liberty City has worn on the family. Naturally introspective, you search for outlets, but nothing yet makes sense. But then here you are, holding a bat, and it all falls into place — your arms and legs know what to do. As the pitch comes, you can feel your dad glaring at you. You don’t want to disappoint, because you know for every pat on the back, it’s always followed by a criticism. When you swing, the contact is pure. The ball sails over the right fielder. When you round third, you look over and your father is beaming. From then on baseball becomes not an obsession, but your sustenance. 

*****

After the Orioles let him go, Palmeiro tried to stay in shape, hoping for an offer the next year, but no one was willing to take a flyer on a 40-year-old with a steroid past. When he knew his agent wasn’t going to call, the full force of shame struck him head on, and he retreated inside his palatial estate in the Dallas suburbs. His TV would flicker in his room, but he rarely watched it.

“I was done with baseball. I hated it,” he says. “It wasn’t like I had a void, like ‘what do I do now,’ it was, ‘let’s see if I survive today.’”

Lynne wanted to get out of Dallas and take a vacation somewhere. “There’s so much more out there, Rafael,” she’d tell him. They met at a house party when they were both students at Mississippi State, before Palmeiro’s sophomore year. A first-team All-American, he was too shy to introduce himself, so he sent his friend to ask if she would come over and talk. She was stunning. Tall and blonde, with a smile the length of a country mile, they couldn’t have been more different. A perpetual optimist, she grew up in a rural home outside of Tupelo, Mississippi, her graduating high school class was 48 people. Just after Palmeiro turned 21 they married in a small church in Mississippi, then drove to Peoria, Illinois, where he was playing Class-A ball in the Cubs’ organization.

So sure of his ability, he tore through the minor leagues and was called up to the majors within a year. Before his debut he stood in front of his locker visualizing his first at-bat, just as his dad had taught him. All-Stars Ryne Sandberg and Rick Sutcliffe walked over to the rookie and inspected his aging cleats, which were held together by tape, then tossed them in the garbage.

“They said, ‘You can’t wear that here.’” They ordered the clubhouse manager to get a pair of new shoes and batting gloves. “I was so nervous it was unreal,” Palmeiro says. “But when the game started I was in my environment, in my safe zone.”

He matured quickly into one of the most consistent hitters in the game, and soon his first son Patrick was born, followed by Preston 5 years later. “He was such a great father,” Lynne says. “He wanted to be with them as much as possible.” When he achieved his first major milestone by belting home run number 500 while playing for the Texas Rangers in 2003, his two sons rushed onto the field and helped him tug down a tarp revealing a mural of Palmeiro plastered onto the right field wall. “They thought I hung the moon, man.”

In the days after the positive steroid test was announced, the Palmeiros flew from New Jersey to hide away at a friend’s house in Pebble Beach, California. Palmeiro turned the TV off, hoping to shield his sons from the public’s wrath. He agonized over how to tell them what was going on. But his boys, now 15 and 10, didn’t need to know the details to recognize their father was a broken man. “My kids never saw me the same,” Palmeiro says. “I was someone who didn’t care about anything.”

Inside his estate Palmeiro was struggling to understand how he’d strayed so far off his predestined path toward baseball’s highest honor. He told his wife he couldn’t leave Dallas, instead he’d turn off his phone, get in his car and drive around the city for hours. Since he was growing up in Miami, hitting a baseball was a solvable equation — his mind was structured to decipher it. But this was different. He’d fixate on conversations during that final year and turn them inside out, replaying every word as if watching himself in a movie, trying to figure out some way back in time.

“You should talk to someone,” his wife would tell him. But who could possibly understand? The man she married, the quiet, determined man, was now mostly catatonic, “like a zombie,” she says.

Meanwhile, Congress had opened up a perjury investigation against Palmeiro from his testimony in March 2005. Ex-teammates, fear of guilt by association, all but avoided him, and baseball fans had begun to wonder if his entire persona was contrived. One evening, former Oriole Brian Roberts texted him. They hadn’t spoken in a while and Palmeiro picked up the phone and called his old friend. Roberts, though, said he had mistakenly texted Palmeiro instead of another teammate. They spoke for a couple minutes anyway — it was cordial, nothing more.

As the days melted into months, Palmeiro’s anger began to show. In the car, or alone in his room, he’d rage against the permanence of his reality. Then at a youth summer league game, he exploded. His sons were now local stars. Patrick was a hard-hitting third baseman at Heritage High School, while Preston was a left-handed first baseman in local youth leagues with the same sweet swing as his dad. Palmeiro’s only real connection to the outside world was through their games. He’d perch near the dugout, wearing wraparound sunglasses and a baseball cap pulled low.

During a summer tournament, Preston had been struggling through a slump, before doubling off the fence. Then, in the next at-bat, he belted the ball clean over the fence and over the trees directly behind center field. As he was trotting around the bases, one of the opposing moms muttered, “He’s probably on steroids like his dad.”

Palmeiro, who was near the dugout when someone told him what the parent said, turned and bounded up the steps to confront the woman, leaning over her. “That’s bull,” he screamed. “If you got something to say about my son, you say it to my face.” Lynne stood up next to her man and her own repressed anger burst out. Frustrated at her husband, at baseball, at her own crumbling family, she too screamed at the parent.

The crowd was silent, the game stopped. Palmeiro looked around, then slunk back down to the dugout.

*****

You’re 24 years old. It’s the bottom of the eighth, down 1-0, you and Clemens. ‘Visualize,’ you tell yourself, ‘visualize.’ You need this, because the fear still keeps you up at night. What if some young kid coming up takes away your at-bats, then your position, then your father’s approval? It’s the reason you watch endless hours of tape, keying in on every pitcher’s tendencies. That’s why you know a fastball is coming — inside. You can still see the threads spinning. In your darkest hours, this is what you cling to, like a child sucking a pacifier. Head down. Hips turn. Boom. Rounding the bases, your feet never touch the ground. 

*****

The Mexican restaurant is designed like a hacienda ranch — wood beams and stone pillars. There’s a stuffed white bear in the entrance. For nearly an hour he’s been going through his experience. Palmeiro fidgets in his seat and moves to the corner of the booth, one leg up. After telling of the suspension announcement during the dark days of 2005, he looks right at me.

“You know what was hard?” he asks. “Going back to Baltimore and being booed and having signs at the ballpark — liar, steroid monster. I could see that happening on the road in Boston or Toronto. People are bad, throwing (stuff) at me. But I couldn’t see that from the fans that two weeks before were embracing me. I’ve never been back to Baltimore.”

It was 11 years ago, but it’s yesterday. He speaks quickly, trying to get every thought out, then he’ll pause for long stretches as if focusing on a particular memory. He reaches down and takes a sip of sweet tea, then a burst of defiance comes over him.

“If I would have cheated this game, the way some of these guys cheated, I would have hit 700 home runs.” He laughs, a tight-lipped, half-hearted laugh.

By 2007, Palmeiro had begun to find traces of his confidence again. He was buying residential properties around Dallas in partnership with a real estate company from the Northeast and was soon approached about investing in a 92-acre plot ripe for mixed-use development. But Palmeiro didn’t want to just invest. He put down $53 million of his own money and began working the phones — calling architects, building companies and even the mayor of nearby Grapevine. “It was a good distraction,” he says.

A few months before, he found out Congress’ three-month perjury investigation ended with no charges being filed. In a 36-page document, investigators could find no “specific evidence that Mr. Palmeiro took steroids” before his testimony on Capitol Hill. The findings weren’t an exoneration, but he felt a sense of relief. Soon he volunteered to coach his son’s 12- and 13-year-old youth team. “He wasn’t easy on the kids, because he could see what they could deliver,” Lynne says. “But he loved it.”

In one of the first games he managed, his team endured a 16-run loss and the mercy rule was invoked. Every little failure dug into open wounds, and he called his team together. “I don’t care if you win a championship, or win any tournaments,” he told them. “But before the summer is over, we’re beating that team.”

In August they played the same team again and won by a run. His kids jumped around like they’d won a championship. “The other parents got mad we were celebrating so much,” he says.

He began to see the possibility of a new life, and continued plans on his 92-acre plot. Shortly after, though, it all fell apart. The economy collapsed, the project was scrapped and he filed for bankruptcy. “He put himself in a situation he wasn’t ready for,” Lynne says. Palmeiro avoided financial ruin, but now fell back into depression.

*****

Throughout everything, Palmeiro always had one hope of redemption. He’d always wanted to be in the Hall of Fame. It wasn’t just a whimsical dream. The statistical goals that he wrote down before each season were yearly projections he needed to be enshrined amongst the greats.

“Based on my credentials, what I did on the field equals first-ballot Hall of Famer, end of story,” he says.

The first year he was eligible, in 2011, he watched the results from his couch. Reporters were calling asking what he thought his chances were and how much the steroids would affect the Hall of Fame voting. But really they just wanted to know if he was a steroid user and unrepentant cheater, or a naive sap, or maybe an innocent man. He was polite and, if asked, he’d repeat that his positive test was a result of a tainted B-12 vial. Needing 75 percent of eligible baseball writers to vote him in, his heart sunk as he watched his name scroll across the bottom of his TV screen with just 11 percent of the vote, less than even admitted long-term steroid abuser Mark McGwire.

“That was like a knife in the back,” he says. “I knew I wasn’t going in the first year because of what happened, but I’m thinking 50 or 60 percent. They’ll punish me, then the second year I’ll get in.” The following year it increased slightly to 12.6 percent, but in 2013 he dipped down to 8.8 percent. “The writers said, ‘What happened to you at the end, nullifies everything you did.’” He put on a brave face, but he was devastated.

Since he had stopped playing, he’d kept his trophy room closed, as if to keep the memories he wanted to avoid locked inside. One day he decided he wanted to go in and hold the ball he’d been given for his 3,000th hit. For years it represented all the shame, all the anger and sadness. Now, for once he wanted to feel a sense of accomplishment again. But there was a problem, he couldn’t find it anywhere. He searched his room, the kids’ rooms, the garage. He needed that ball.

A short time later he sold his 1937 Cadillac convertible and when the buyer came to pick up the car, Rafael went outside with Lynne and popped the trunk — and there it was, in bubble wrap with a sheet attached explaining its historical significance, along with the ball from his 3,008th hit, the one that allowed him to pass the great Frank Robinson in career total bases. He picked it up, held it for a moment, then tossed it aside and shrugged his shoulders. “It doesn’t mean anything,” he told his wife.

For so long, Lynne had placated Palmeiro. She quietly watched as he had used his depression as a “crutch for any sort of behavior.” She had begun to see a therapist herself. You can’t try to change him, she was told. And she didn’t, but watching him flip the ball away, after she’d been by his side through every single one of those hits, struck a nerve.

“No, Rafael.” She said, looking up at him. “It does matter. I don’t give a shit what anyone says. You did that.”

She took the ball out of the wrapper and placed it in the trophy room. When the Hall of Fame vote came up again in 2014, his worst fears were realized. He received only 4.4 percent of the vote and fell off the ballot completely, ineligible for another 12 years, his fate in the hands of the Veterans Committee. Reporters stopped calling. For so long, he repeated his defense of the positive test. Now there was no one left to plead with. Whether he took steroids or not no longer seemed to matter. Because the only thing worse than people not believing you is apathy — it’s people not even caring.

*****

You’re 50 years old. But inside, in your mind, you can still do this. It’s 2015 and your son Patrick is playing independent ball with the Sugar Land Skeeters. Their manager Gary Gaetti, an old colleague, asks you to come play a game. It’ll be fun, Lynne says. But now that you’re here, doubt creeps in. You know what the fans will be saying if you swing and miss. In the fourth inning you step to the plate, and then, you’re nine years old again. Your father is glaring at you from the other side of fence. You can feel the uncertainty. ‘Visualize,’ he’s saying, ‘visualize’. Fastball. As if you never missed a beat; you slap it through the middle of the infield. When you stand on first base, for a brief moment, you feel OK.

*****

Last March, Palmeiro spent most of Spring Training in Florida back at Orioles camp. His eldest, Patrick, is now in the organization, and Palmeiro was there almost as his son’s de facto coach. Sometimes Lynne tells him he’s turning into his dad, glaring at his sons after mistakes and quick to criticize.

Recently she’s nudged him to get back into baseball. Other names from the steroid era now have prominent positions in Major League Baseball. McGwire is a well-respected hitting coach — and now the bench coach for the San Diego Padres — and Bonds is now working with the Miami Marlins, but so far Palmeiro has resisted. Instead he spends his time criss-crossing the country watching his two sons play (Preston is a junior with NC State), and he’s started to consider new business ventures. But the weight of embarrassment is still there, and it’s heavy. “The thought of being rejected is a hard thing for him to deal with,” Lynne says. “It’s still so raw for him, it can seem like everything just happened.”

A few weeks ago in Raleigh, Palmeiro overhead a conversation between Lynne and Preston after he’d got into a discussion with his son. He walked towards them trying to get them to see his point of view. “You don’t understand what I’ve had to deal with the last few years,” he said. Lynne froze, initially unable to say anything, but she was furious. “It happened to all of us,” she told him. “It affected our whole family.”

When they got back to Dallas, there was no illuminating moment for Palmeiro, and he and Lynne never spoke of it again, but the words lingered. “He knows,” Lynne says. “But if he has to say how hard it’s been for me and Patrick and Preston, then it’s horrible for him because he has to realize he’s hurt other people.”

Shortly after, in early April, he’s scheduled to fly back to Raleigh for another NC State home series, but at the last minute he cancels his flight. Lynne says he’s begun to realize that he has to give Preston space, to “let him make his own legacy.”

Instead, on the day before the series starts in Raleigh, Palmeiro is at home in Dallas, just finished with a workout. It’s hard not to imagine him sitting in the same spot where he’s spent much of the last few years, reliving the moments after the positive test was revealed. During all our talks I’ve never asked him if he took stanozolol, mostly because there’s nothing to say. If he injected steroids every day or not at all, the last decade of his life happened, and the torment of knowing it can never be reversed is excruciating. 

As we get off the phone after our final conversation I ask him what he sees for the future. He takes a long pause.

“My life now is my sons, and helping them to be better,” he says. “But for me, what do I want?” he asks. “I don’t know.”

Flinder Boyd is a former European professional basketball player turned writer. His features have appeared at Newsweek, SBNation Longform, and on the BBC among others. He grew up in Los Angeles, before attending Dartmouth College and later Queen Mary, University of London. On Twitter he can be found @FlinderBoyd.

Cover photo by Scott Aleman/www.scottaleman.com.