Rafael Palmeiro's 10-day, steroids--related suspension ends today, and he now faces an uncertain - and potentially harrowing - adjustment as he rejoins the Orioles and faces baseball fans to whom he has provided an incomplete explanation.
Palmeiro, who was in contact with Orioles players during his suspension, returns for tonight's game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, but may view the game from the dugout. Orioles manager Sam Perlozzo said he might ease Palmeiro back into the lineup, not to protect him from the fans' wrath, but rather to allow the 40-year-old first baseman to work his way back into shape for a day or more.
Palmeiro plans to return without the more detailed explanation of his positive steroids test that his agent suggested was forthcoming and that the media had been expecting.
Palmeiro had said initially the steroid entered his body accidentally. A week ago, agent Arn Tellem asked fans to reserve judgment on Palmeiro until they had heard his version. "There is another side to this story, and Raffy will tell it soon," Tellem said.
But yesterday, Tellem issued another statement, saying it "would not be appropriate" for Palmeiro to comment while the House Committee on Government Reform continues an inquiry into the ballplayer's case. As part of its investigation, the committee wants to find out if Palmeiro was lying when he told its members on March 17 that he never used steroids.
Committee aides said yesterday that the panel had placed no special restriction on Palmeiro's speech or activities. One panel member, Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings, said he wanted to hear more from Palmeiro.
"I think he owes a debt of straightforwardness," Cummings said. "He needs to say, 'I made my mistakes. I was wrong.'"
But Tellem's statement suggested such a statement wasn't in the works.
"Pending review by that committee, there will be no other public comment," Tellem's statement said. "Raffy looks forward to rejoining the Orioles [today], and he will focus his attention on baseball."
Before Tellem's statement, Palmeiro and his advisers, in talking with the team, had considered holding a news conference for the Oriole to talk further about how the steroid - reportedly stanozolol - may have entered his system and was uncovered in a drug test, according to officials knowledgeable about the team. But his representatives decided against such a public forum.
Palmeiro tested positive in May, which meant he knew he was potentially in trouble as he chased his milestone 3,000th hit - a feat lauded by Major League Baseball. His suspension was announced on Aug. 1, and he hasn't faced the fans - either home or away - since.
The Orioles are home through the weekend, then begin a road trip with stops in Oakland and Cleveland.
On the eve of Palmeiro's return, representatives of Major League Baseball and its players union took what they called the "unusual step" of issuing a joint statement to refute "media reports and rumors" that other big-name players had also tested positive for steroids and that the results were being withheld.
"Reports of large numbers of positive tests currently unreported are totally false," said the statement issued by Robert Manfred, an MLB executive vice president, and Eugene Orza, chief operating officer of the Major League Baseball Players Association. "Reports of 'big name' players having the reporting of their test results delayed are totally false." Manfred and Orza are members of the Health Policy Advisory Committee, which oversees baseball's drug testing program.
Meanwhile, the team, which consulted with Palmeiro before canceling a scheduled Aug. 14 event honoring him for his 3,000th hit, sounds unsure of what to expect from fans.
"I don't know if he is going to get a standing ovation," teammate Jay Gibbons said. "I don't know if people will turn their backs. I don't know what's going to happen."
Said outfielder David Newhan: "It's going to be ugly. We already heard some of it in Anaheim, people asking where Raffy is. It is going to be bad. I can only imagine what they are going to be saying, but that's their right."
Palmeiro himself doesn't know how spectators will treat him, said Gibbons, who has talked with the first baseman during the suspension.
"I am not going to get into the conversation. Let's just say that he's uncertain like everybody else," said Gibbons.
Perlozzo said he expected the team to convene and discuss Palmeiro's return.
"I would assume at some point in time we will talk about it, whether it is Raffy talking to them about it or me talking to them or them talking to each other with Raffy," the manager said. "I am sure there will be something going on."
The challenge for the Orioles is to remain focused even as fans boo and the clubhouse is occupied by "reporters we have never seen before," Gibbons said.
Said Perlozzo: "For us to be a real team, I mean a real team, we're going to have to stick together, flat out going to have to stick together somehow. And it is going to be our jobs to make sure that happens. I'm not going to say it is going to be easy one bit. We're going to get boos, we are going to hear the calls and we are going to have to get over it."
Some fans have said in Internet fan forums that Palmeiro should retire. But Perlozzo said he told Palmeiro he wanted him back this season. "I am expecting him to walk in the door tomorrow," the manager said.
As it investigates Palmeiro, the congressional committee isn't trying to push him into an early retirement.
"Baseball needs tougher [steroid] penalties, but I do not think Palmeiro should retire," said panel member Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican. "The point is that it's time to clean up baseball's drug policy, not clean out its rosters."
If he is to play well, Palmeiro - and his teammates - are going to have to block out fans' taunts.
"I think professional athletes are very good at compartmentalizing negative developments," said David Carter, president of the Sports Business Group in Los Angeles. "I truly think the ability to do that is a skill."
It may get tougher when the Orioles leave Camden Yards.
"What's it going to be like when he hits the road? The road is going to hit back," Carter said. "They're going to have some fun with him."