Some thoughts on Rafael Palmeiro making a comeback
Legend has it that a reporter once asked Lefty O’Doul what he thought Ty Cobb would hit if he were playing at that time.
“Oh, about .320,” O’Doul was said to have replied.
Asked why only .320, O’Doul said: “Well, you have to remember the man is almost 70.”
The story is illustrative of the self-confidence of former athletes, a trait particularly common among great ones. They possess a confidence bordering on arrogance that is crafted by memories of past feats, a wealth of experience and understanding of their sport — and probably a healthy forgetfulness of just what an incredibly physical grind the game is.
While O’Doul was talking about another player, he undoubtedly held similar opinions about himself, as any great hitter would.
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As perhaps Rafael Palmeiro does. Yes, that Rafael Palmeiro.
The former slugger and a great compiler of statistics, who saw his surefire path to Cooperstown blocked by a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs in 2005, is now making noise about a comeback.
“There’s no doubt in my mind I can do it,” Palmeiro told Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. “I’ve taken care of myself really well. I’ve been working out for years. Everything feels better than when I played.”
Palmeiro is 53 and has not played a game in 12 years. Most likely the reason he feels better than when he played is because, well, he has not been playing. Anyone who follows the game closely knows that the trick of baseball is not preparing your body and your mind for a game or a series, but doing it for 162 games over six months … plus six weeks of spring training … plus, if you’re lucky, the playoffs. It’s the toughest grind in sports. So this is in large part self-delusion.
But it’s also about a desire to change his ending, and perhaps restart his Hall of Fame clock, which would occur if he plays in just one MLB game.
Palmeiro is one of just five players with more than 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, 1,071 of those hits and 223 of those homers coming across seven seasons in Baltimore. And yet he was off the Hall of Fame ballot after four years thanks to that pesky PED test.
“I want to prove to myself I can do it on a high level,” he said, “then walk away feeling good about the whole body of work.”
Palmeiro isn’t interested in playing independent ball or going to the minors. He wants an invite to spring training with a shot to make the club. Can he pull it off? It seems highly unlikely when you consider other players in his age range who have made similar attempts.
Let’s take a look:
I interviewed Moyer at spring training in 2012. He was 49, coming off Tommy John surgery and trying to make a comeback with the Colorado Rockies. He was supremely confident that he could land a spot with the Rockies, who were young and lacked leadership on the pitching staff. But he also made it clear that he didn’t want to make the team as the old guy who brings wisdom to the young guys, he wanted to make the team based on what he could contribute on the mound.
I thought he had a shot because he was not a guy who relied on velocity. How much more could he lose off that fastball anyway?
Alas, while he did make the Rockies roster he did not fare well, managing just 53.2 innings over 10 starts with a 5.70 ERA. The Rockies released him in June, and while Moyer did later get shots with the Orioles and Blue Jays, he never made another big league start.
After a long, impressive career in the Independent and Negro Leagues, Paige finally got a chance to start his MLB career in 1948 at age 42. He ended up pitching five full seasons for the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Browns, mostly as a reliever. At that point in his career he no longer had the gas of his younger days, but his crafty assortment of pitches and the trickery of a magician helped him put together a 3.29 ERA, a 3.28 FIP and 124 ERA+.
The aforementioned Williams once shared a story of facing Paige in which the pitcher turned his wrist during the windup to flash a curveball grip, but then followed through with a fastball for strike three.
“He’d give you that nice easy motion, then he’d stop, and there it was!” Williams said. “All the time I was hitting up there, I was thinking, ‘Boy this guy must have been some kind of pitcher.”
After being away from the game for 12 years, Paige returned to the Kansas City Athletics at age 59. He made one start and pitched three scoreless innings, becoming the oldest pitcher to play in a big league game.
O’Leary was a light-hitting infielder who played 10 seasons for Detroit and St. Louis from 1904-1913. He returned for just one game in 1934 for St. Louis at 58, collecting a pinch-hit single and scoring a run, becoming the oldest player to do either.
A great player as a seven-time All-Star over a long MLB career, Minoso was also the king of extending his career through the use of publicity stunts. After 12 years away from the game, he appeared in three games for the White Sox in 1976 at 50. Four years later he played two more games for the White Sox at 54.
In 1993, he played a game for the St. Paul Saints at age 67. A decade later he played for the Saints again at 77, becoming the only player to appear professionally in seven different decades.
Franco is probably the closest comparison to Palmeiro, not just because he retired in 2007 at 49 as the oldest position player in modern baseball, but because he received regular playing time that year – assuming that’s what Palmeiro wants.
Franco hit .222/.321/.289 in 55 games with the Mets and Braves in 2007. He didn’t do a whole lot at the plate, though he did show he still had a solid eye for the strike zone, drawing 14 walks compared to 23 strikeouts. In the field, he played third and first and didn’t make any errors. His contributions to his teams were small beyond allowing them to say they had the oldest position player in modern baseball history.
By the way, Franco didn’t stop there. He eventually became player-manager of a Japanese independent team at age 56. He played in 10 games and hit .333.
Franco is the best player to look at when considering if Palmeiro can actually make a comeback, but there are a couple of key differences. First, Palmeiro is now four years older than Franco was when he retired. Secondly, Franco wasn’t dealing with a huge layoff at the time. In fact, Franco was pretty good in his early- and mid-40s, hitting .309 with a .818 OPS in 2004 when he was 45.
Orioles general manager Dan Duquette was politely non-committal when asked about a Palmeiro comeback, saying it would be “an interesting story. It’s like tying your shoes. … If you can hit, then you can hit.”
But the question here isn’t if Palmeiro can hit, it’s if he can hit over the course of a season. Unless you want to bring him back as a publicity stunt, or perhaps to give him a few weeks to try and create a happier ending for himself, then it’s best to be skeptical of the whole thing.