BALTIMORE (AP) — Rafael Palmeiro had just played one of the most harrowing baseball games of his 20-year major league career. He was booed by many of the hometown fans, went 0-for-4 and made the final out with the potential tying and winning runs on base.
The maligned slugger dutifully spoke with a sizable media throng in front of his locker, and when the crowd finally departed, his youngest son, 10-year-old Preston, gave him a big hug.
Palmeiro smiled, perhaps for the first time all day.
On a day originally designed to honor his performance on the baseball diamond, Palmeiro was simultaneously cheered and jeered Sunday for his dishonorable activity off the field.
Four days after returning to the Baltimore Orioles from a 10-day suspension for steroid use, Palmeiro played baseball for the first time. He batted sixth as the designated hitter, which sheltered him from the 95-degree temperature and the heat of the 30,954 fans at Camden Yards, many of whom booed when his name was announced during pregame introductions.
The response was more animated when Palmeiro walked to the plate in the first inning.
Many fans stood and cheered in a display of forgiveness to a longtime contributor to the Orioles. Others jeered, angered that Palmeiro has yet to explain how steroids were detected in his system only a few months after he wagged his finger at Congress in March, vowing before a congressional committee that he never used the performance-enhancing drug.
Palmeiro drew a walk, then grounded out three straight times before stepping to the plate in the ninth inning with two runners on and two outs and the Orioles trailing the Toronto Blue Jays 7-6.
Although several fans booed, many in the thinned crowd chanted “Raffy! Raffy!’’
His 3,019th career hit could have tied the game, and his 570th career homer would have won it, but Palmeiro instead lifted a routine fly to right field to end the game.
“I just wish we had a win. We had a chance to win it in the ninth and I was up at the plate,” Palmeiro said. “I thought it would’ve been a good opportunity for me to at least get a hit to tie the game.”
It didn’t happen. But at least he had a hug from Preston, who was joined in the clubhouse by his big brother, 15-year-old Patrick.
“They’ve always been there with me throughout my whole career actually, so I’m very thankful that my wife and kids are here to support me,” Palmeiro said. “It means a lot to me.”
Upon being suspended by Major League Baseball for steroid use on Aug. 1, Palmeiro insisted that he did not know how the drug got in his body. He has not addressed the topic since returning Thursday, saying that his attorneys advised him to refrain from comment until Congress concludes its investigation of his case.
Palmeiro was supposed to be honored in a pregame ceremony Sunday. The celebration was designed to salute his accomplishment of becoming the fourth player in major league history to amass at least 3,000 hits and 500 home runs, a feat he realized on July 15.
But the ceremony was called off, at Palmeiro’s request, soon after he began his suspension.
Orioles interim manager Sam Perlozzo gave Palmeiro three days off before putting him in the lineup for the first time. The move enabled the slugger to regain his baseball skills and settle into an environment unlike anything he ever experienced.
“His priority was to get this straightened out,” Perlozzo said Sunday. “He’s gone through two-thirds of that phase; now his next priority is playing on the field.”
Each time he walked to the plate, Palmeiro drew jeers. But as the game wore on, more fans cheered than booed.
Baltimore fans have a reputation for forgiveness: They welcomed back Baltimore Ravens football player Ray Lewis after he stood trial for murder in Atlanta in 2000, and they forgave Ravens running back Jamal Lewis for his part in a proposed drug deal that forced the running back to serve a prison sentence this summer.
Baltimore native Ray Bates walked through the gate Sunday wearing a gray Palmeiro jersey.
“I’m here to support him. I always loved him, I always will,’’ Bates said.
David Williams wore a black Palmeiro T-shirt he bought outside the stadium before the game.
“I don’t condone Raffy for the fact that he cheated, but the fact that he’s paying the penalty and all that, he should be forgiven,’’ Williams said.
Palmeiro won’t play Monday in Oakland, Calif. Perlozzo said, but he expects him back in the lineup Tuesday. Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons said Palmeiro can probably anticipate harsher treatment in Oakland than in Baltimore.
“Obviously, on the road it’s going to be a little bit rougher for him,” Gibbons said. “I think it’s good for him to come back today and hear some of the cheers.”