THE ROAD TO restoration for Rafael Palmeiro is so far off the Major League Baseball map that a newcomer struggles to find his current ballpark — even with a GPS device.
That’s mostly because The Depot at Cleburne Station, home to the independent Cleburne Railroaders, opened just last year. You make a left turn at a farm equipment dealership off the Chisholm Trail Parkway at U.S. 67 on the outskirts of this Texas town. There, on the right, you see the stadium light poles standing tall in the distance. On a blazing Saturday afternoon in June, Palmeiro, 53, and his son, Patrick, 28, pull into a parking space to get ready for work. It’s officially 102, and even hotter on the field turf, where Palmeiro’s shirt is soon soaked with sweat as he launches ball after ball into right-center during batting practice.
To see him swing from afar, one can’t help but be reminded of the sweet left-handed stroke that produced 3,020 hits and 569 home runs in 2,831 major league games with the Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles. But a surefire Hall of Fame career — he’s one of only six players with 3,000 hits and 500 homers — was lost in 2005 after Palmeiro tested positive for steroids, and Hall voters shunned him.
Now, after years of bitterness toward the game, Palmeiro wants to play baseball again — in the majors. He came to the conclusion after a former Railroaders official invited him to catch a ceremonial first pitch last season and suggested he come play in Cleburne, less than an hour from his home.
Palmeiro worked himself into shape over the winter and hoped a major league team might come calling. The phone never rang.
So on May 9, he and Patrick, the older of his two sons and an infielder on the Railroaders, signed contracts in Cleburne, where you can watch them play against the Wichita Wingnuts or the Texas AirHogs.
“He came in and sold himself as being very serious, not looking to be any sort of promotional stunt,” Railroaders general manager Bill Adams says.
Palmeiro says he weighs around 195 now, roughly 20 pounds lighter than when he last played, and adds that he worked out harder last winter than when he was in the majors.
“I love baseball, and I miss it,” he says. “I watched my sons play through high school and through college and now in the minor leagues [son Preston, 23, is in the Orioles organization], and I feel like I can do it, and I feel like I can do it at the highest level.”
“I HAVE NEVER used steroids. Period.”
Palmeiro says he still regrets the six words he uttered while wagging his finger at a congressional committee in March 2005. “A lot of people say that that probably was the thing that hurt me the most,” he says. “I shouldn’t have done that.”
But what hurt more was what happened that summer. In August 2005, weeks after reaching 3,000 hits, Palmeiro was suspended 10 games after he tested positive for the banned steroid stanozolol.
He maintains to this day that he did not knowingly take the drug and that the positive test result might have been linked to a B-12 vitamin injection he received from teammate Miguel Tejada that could have been tainted. Tejada, who denied Palmeiro’s allegation at the time, later pleaded guilty to lying to Congress during the investigation.
Soon after Palmeiro’s return from suspension in 2005, the Orioles told him to stay home, effectively ending his career.
“Devastating. That’s not how I planned it. That’s not what I wanted. That’s not what I wanted for the end of my career,” he says now. “I became bitter, and I hated baseball. I used to go to my sons’ games, and I used to wear a hoodie and sunglasses because I didn’t want to be bothered.”
He distinctly remembers a heckling incident after Preston, then around 13, clubbed a home run in youth baseball.
“I guess you must have taken steroids like your dad did!” a woman behind him hollered, words that he says cut deep. “It hurts me, you know, because it’s my fault that they have to deal with that.”
He continues to deny allegations by his former teammate Jose Canseco, who said in his 2005 book “Juiced” that he injected Palmeiro while the two played for the Rangers. Last year, he says, Canseco reached out through an intermediary.
“I’ve got his number. He wants me to call him. He wants to move on from it, and I’ve already moved on. I don’t have anything against him,” Palmeiro says, adding that the two men have yet to speak.
He also denies his comeback is an attempt to restart his Hall of Fame bid. He fell off the ballot in 2014 after getting less than 5 percent of the vote. In the unlikely event he made it back to the majors, he’d be eligible to return five years after his last appearance.
“When … my name came off the ballot, that’s the end of it. Boom. Over. That’s dead,” he says. “For those people that think that this is about the Hall of Fame, it’s not. There’s a lot of other things in my life that are way more important.”
IN THE RAILROADERS’ clubhouse, Palmeiro is old enough to be the father of every player on the roster (the oldest is 30) and even of 33-year-old manager Shelby Ford. Teammates have taken to calling him “abuelo,” Spanish for grandfather.
“These are grown men; they’re just a lot younger than I am,” he says. “But we all have the same goals in mind, and that is to get back to affiliated ball.”
He says he seeks no special treatment, but there clearly are differences between him and other Railroaders. “You wouldn’t believe the piles of fan mail we get every day. People are sending old baseball cards for him to sign. One guy sent his glove. We’ve had to give him cardboard boxes to hold it all,” Adams says.
Rafael and Patrick drive themselves to away games instead of riding the team bus to outposts such as Wichita and Winnipeg.
On the night he answered questions from ESPN, Palmeiro was a scratch due to a sore calf muscle. But in the fifth inning, more than 60 fans lined the first-base concourse to wait for his autograph. He sat, patiently signing T-shirts, hats and baseball cards and posing for pictures.
Last fall, the team offered its sponsors a coupon for a free player appearance and, since he signed in early May, Palmeiro has rapidly become the Railroaders’ most-requested player, Adams says. Opposing teams even call to see if Palmeiro will be in the lineup so they can promote his appearances.
“From the minor league perspective, there’s always going to be the strong sense that a player of his caliber will draw additional fans,” Adams says.
Since word got out that he wanted to return to baseball, Palmeiro has heard it all from skeptics. The Dallas Morning News published an online piece under the headline: “Is Rafael Palmeiro nuts?”
“I’m going to prove a lot of people wrong, the people that are doubting me.”
“I got the ‘You’re crazy. You’re out of your mind.’ You know, ‘What are you doing? You’re too old,'” he says. “I’m going to prove a lot of people wrong, the people that are doubting me.”
In September 2015, at age 50, Palmeiro went 2-for-4 as a designated hitter with the Sugar Land Skeeters, but that was a one-game publicity appearance for Patrick’s Atlantic League team. Now he’s trying to play every day.
“I think it’s a success whether he gets picked up or not,” says Patrick, who acknowledges his father’s goal is the longest of long shots. “He just wanted to walk away from baseball on his terms. He wasn’t able to. … He’s getting a chance to play a kid’s game and get that love for the game back.”
The reboot had a rough start in Cleburne. Palmeiro went hitless his first two games. But then the swing that launched 569 homers connected for one more on May 21 against the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks. It came on a 1-1 pitch that landed past the Texas flag in right field.
“When he first hit it, I was going crazy,” Patrick says. “I knew he could do it. I wanted to see it.”
But after Palmeiro finished his home run trot, Patrick led a team prank.
“They gave me the silent treatment,” Palmeiro says, smiling. “He played along with all these guys, and that’s OK. … It was funny.”
At age 53, he’s a rookie again.
“I’m at peace with baseball,” Palmeiro says. “I’ve been through a lot. You know, I’ve been humbled. … But I am at peace with myself.”
Producers William Weinbaum and Toby Hershkowitz contributed to this report.