Sunday, February 08, 2009
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Palmer's era gave fans clean baseball superstars

BLACKSBURG -- The news had already broken by the time Jim Palmer arrived in Blacksburg on Saturday.

Another baseball player had been caught. This time, it was the game's biggest star, Alex Rodriguez.

It was all over the TV, the radio, the Internet. An alleged positive steroid test in 2003, according to Sports Illustrated.

Another stain.

In front of this backdrop, Palmer, the 63-year-old Hall of Fame pitcher and television analyst, walked onto Virginia Tech's campus looking just as dashing as he did 20 years ago. Perfect hair. Piercing blue eyes. Dark suit, purple tie.

Clean.

This is what we're losing in baseball: True, honest-to-goodness icons. The A-Rod news probably didn't surprise you terribly, but it still should sadden you if you're a baseball fan.

In 15 or 20 years, when the next wave of Jim Palmers walks into a room, it won't look like it did at the Baseball Night in Blacksburg fundraiser on Saturday. There will be whispers. There will be questions. There will be doubts.

And there should be.

The Palmers of the world are fading from view. His achievements -- eight 20-win seasons, three AL Cy Young awards, three World Series titles -- are remarkable, but they're also comforting.

We know we can believe them.

"I wonder what the last class of that would have been, you know?" Tech baseball coach Pete Hughes said of the stars above suspicion. "Probably mid-80s, late-80s. I don't know."

Palmer got out just in time, then. He retired from baseball in 1984, a year after his final World Series title with the Orioles. I'll never forget his comeback attempt in spring training of 1991. There was fanfare, hype, hope.

And then Palmer, 45 at the time, got shelled in two exhibition innings and gave it up on the spot. Which is sort of the way life's supposed to work. Aging is real.

"That was the frustrating thing," Palmer told a handful of reporters Saturday before speaking to an audience of more than 200 at the benefit for the Hokies baseball program. "When your body wears out from all the innings and all the complete games and all that, the doctors said, 'Hey, you've done everything you can.'

"Well, maybe if I was playing in a different era, maybe that wouldn't have been."

You know what he means. Maybe he would have taken something.

Maybe the allure of the millions of dollars would have been too strong. Maybe a syringe would have given him 500 more innings and 30 more wins.

Thankfully, he says, "I never had to deal with that.

"I dealt with the fact that you're going to pitch against Nolan Ryan. Could you outwork him? Outpitch him? Maybe hold runners better, do the little things. The shortcuts, doing the right thing vs. what's going to give me more money or the immediate gratification, that's something we always have to deal with."

In February of 2004, Palmer was working an Orioles fantasy camp with former manager Earl Weaver when news broke that A-Rod had been traded to the Yankees. Weaver turned to his former ace and said, "So, where's Jeter moving?"

That how good a shortstop Rodriguez was.

And now we learn that, at least the season before that trade, he allegedly had some help.

"The game has just changed," said Palmer, who does color commentary on Orioles TV broadcasts. "I'm disappointed in Alex Rodriguez. I've seen him at 3:30 when the temperature's 100 degrees go out on the field and do his whole program before anybody's on the field.

"I'll be up in the booth or doing some stuff or whatever, he's out there doing it. So he's got a tremendous work ethic, but does he have a tremendous work ethic because he's taking something that allows him to be even better?"

A-Rod will have to face those questions in the coming days, months and years. Someday, the baseball writers will have to determine if he belongs in the Hall of Fame alongside guys like Palmer.

Palmer's glad he doesn't have a vote.

"The dilemma for me is I saw Rafael Palmeiro play most of his career," Palmer said of the former All-Star who was among the first big names to test positive for performance enhancing drugs. "I saw him at the end in 2005. We're in Toronto and he needed 78 hits [to reach 3,000]. I'm going, 'How's he going to get 78 hits? His bat speed is running out of gas.'

"And all of a sudden ... something happened. All of a sudden, the bat got a little bit quicker. So how do you judge a guy like that?"

The same way you judge all of the stars these days, unfortunately.

With a cynical eye.

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