Moments before stepping onto the field at Camden Yards yesterday for the first time since serving a 10-day suspension for failing a drug test, Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro was joined in the home dugout by the team's best player, Miguel Tejada.
It was two hours before game time, with no one in the stands and only a smattering of the 50-plus media members ringing the field, when Tejada threw his arm around Palmeiro and escorted him to the batting cage.
As they approached the tarp covering the outer edges of the backstop, Tejada grabbed Palmeiro's left arm and lifted it toward the sky, like a referee crowning a champion prizefighter.
There were some smiles and some camera shutters clicked, but nothing was spoken.
As the Orioles' leader, Tejada made his statement through his actions: Palmeiro's national reputation may be in tatters, but he is welcome in the clubhouse.
"He made a mistake. He said he is sorry," Tejada said. "I don't think it will be an issue for the whole team because we know he made a mistake and we are going to support him."
At least two of Palmeiro's teammates, however, said privately that they were waiting to hear an explanation of how the steroid stanozolol allegedly ended up in Palmeiro's system. That explanation didn't come yesterday.
Instead of addressing them as a group, Palmeiro briefly spoke to his teammates individually before the game against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He received a hug from strength coach Tim Bishop, a fist bump from pitcher Daniel Cabrera and a handshake from outfielder Sammy Sosa.
"I just asked him if he wanted to speak to the team and he said, no, he would rather go around individually," said manager Sam Perlozzo. "Emotionally, he has been through a lot and he thought it would be better that he did that. He said he would tell everyone he was sorry about the distraction."
When Palmeiro arrived in the players' parking lot at 2:58 p.m., 10 TV cameras greeted him, including one that had been staked out since 11 a.m., a club spokesman said. About 90 minutes after his arrival, Palmeiro offered a three-minute statement to the media throng in the Orioles' dugout.
"I want to say that I'm happy to be back. I'm anxious to get back on the field and playing the game that I love very much," said Palmeiro, who didn't play last night. "It's been a tough time for me and my family over the last couple of weeks."
Then he reiterated his stance from last week, citing legal advice prohibiting him from discussing details about his case.
"I've been instructed by my attorneys not to comment on the situation," said Palmeiro, who told the House Committee on Government Reform in March that he had never taken steroids. "The time will come soon, hopefully, that I can explain my situation."
He did not give a timetable for his anticipated explanation. Major League Baseball has told the House committee that it will turn over documents related to Palmeiro's case today.
"I'm not sure. Congress is going over all the stuff right now, and I am just going to wait on that situation to be over with," he said. "I'm just taking it one day at a time."
If his teammates - at least publicly - were supportive, the crowd at Camden Yards was more mixed.
While Palmeiro took batting practice, about 20 fans watched silently from above the Orioles' dugout. When Palmeiro finished, he walked over and signed autographs for several minutes, hearing only supportive comments.
"I didn't think that he would stop, but I was glad that he did," said Paige Horn, 12, of Glen Burnie, who had been holding a sign that read, "I believe what he said."
Salley Collins of Bethesda waited in line for a Palmeiro autograph.
"Regardless of what the test is, he did the time," Collins, 27, said. "Show me a career where someone hasn't made a mistake."
Not everyone was so forgiving. One fan walked the concourse holding an orange sign with black letters that read, "Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire."
Four 20-something buddies sitting several rows behind the Orioles' dugout wore orange T-shirts with Palmiero's No. 25 on the back and "Hall of Shame" with a hypodermic syringe on the front.
Their protest cost them $52, or $13 per shirt.
"We decided if we were going to come out for the Devil Rays, which is not exciting, we were going to make shirts," said Michael Riordan, 24, of Washington. "These are collectors' items for us."
Not everyone found their statement amusing. After Sosa playfully pointed toward the men and their shirts, ushers confronted the group for allegedly harassing the team. Things were settled after a few tense moments.
"Just because we don't like one player doesn't mean we don't like the Orioles," said 24-year-old Scott Anderson, a police officer from Harrisonburg, Va. "I think he goes into the Hall of Fame, but I don't think he deserves it."
Palmeiro said he wasn't sure how he would be treated.
"You know, these are great fans. I've always enjoyed playing here," Palmeiro said. "These are the best fans in the game, and I hope they can understand my situation right now and I'll accept however they react."
Because he didn't participate in any baseball activities during the layoff, Perlozzo said he wouldn't play the first baseman until he felt he could help the team. That could be a couple of more days.
"I've never had 10 days off. I've played for 20 years and I've never been on the [disabled list]," he said. "I've always played in every game. This is new to me."
By today, the crush of national media is expected to lessen. There were roughly twice as many media representatives covering yesterday's game as is normal at Camden Yards.
Several players stayed away from the main part of the clubhouse for much of the afternoon, while media took up about half the room. One player sang the Barnum & Bailey theme while proclaiming the scene a "circus," preceded by a profanity.
The national attention will further subside once Palmeiro takes the field and steps into the batter's box. There are different theories on what will happen then.
"There are going to be a bunch of boos, and we are hoping for a bunch of cheers. And that's going to happen everywhere," Perlozzo said. "That's part of what's happened here, and he's going to have to get through it and so are we."
By the eighth inning yesterday, though, a chant of "We Want Raffy" had started in the stadium's lower bowl, giving a glimpse at what could happen when Palmeiro plays.
"I think these people are in for a pleasant surprise, the reaction he's going to get," Orioles reliever Jason Grimsley said. "I know the reaction he got when he walked in the clubhouse. He's my teammate. I'll go to war with him any day."
Sun staff writers Candus Thomson and Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this article.
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