Tuesday, April 11, 2006

What makes a hometown hero?

In an era of free agency and frequent player movement, individual memories are what make a player "one of ours."

By Matthew Taylor

What makes a guy "one of ours"? What allows the fans of a particular team to claim a guy as one of their own despite the fact that he's played in many major-league cities? Is it the length of tenure? Is it postseason performance (in which case, I'm not going to have anyone to claim as my own)? Or is it a "Moneyball" matter, strictly stats?

I started this debate with a grad school friend last summer. We have a lot in common - he's from Boston, and I'm a flip-flopper. In terms of this debate, though, could it be that we have a Burger King matter on our hands? Can we both really have it our way?

Some context is necessary.

On July 9, 2005, the Orioles topped the Boston Red Sox 9-1 at Camden Yards. Bruce Chen pitched seven strong innings for the quality start. Miguel Tejada was 5-for-5 at the plate with an RBI. And Rafael Palmeiro went 2-for-3 with a homerun and six RBIs, putting him just three hits shy of 3,000. David Ginsburg of the Associated Press described Palmeiro’s afternoon at the dish as “a prolific offensive display.”

On July 10, 2005, I received an unhappy e-mail from my friend, a Red Sox fan who saw that display in person at the Yard. Clearly bitter about the outcome, he commented that he couldn’t help but think, as he watched the crowd of 49,000 strong (okay, many of those in attendance probably weren’t O’s fans) heap adulation upon Raffy, that Palmeiro wasn’t really an Oriole. More of a Ranger, really.

A fast, friendly debate ensued about what makes a player "one of ours." I argued vigorously on behalf of O’s fans everywhere. Rafael Corrales Palmeiro was indeed an Oriole. Sure he put up his biggest numbers, including a mammoth 1999 season (.324 average, 47 HR, 148 RBIs, all career highs), in a Texas uniform. But I wasn’t going to let a little thing like fact get in the way of my opinion. After all, who could forget Palmeiro’s open letter to Orioles fans in The Baltimore Sun, the one thanking us for our support that ran after he signed with Texas following the ’98 season? That has to count for something.

Was Johnny Damon a Red Sox guy or a Royals guy, I asked. What about Big Papi? A Red Sox guy or a Twins guy? After all, despite all of their success in Beantown, both players (Damon, Ortiz) had spent more seasons with small-market teams than they did with the (Not Quite As) Evil Empire.

I kept the fight above the belt – no mention of Clemens – and it’s a good thing. Less than a month later Raffy was suspended by Major League Baseball for violating the league’s steroid policy.

I e-mailed my friend one final time: “You know,” I wrote, “I’ve always considered Palmeiro more of a Ranger than an Oriole.”

Is Palmeiro an Oriole?

Numbers-wise, Rafael Palmeiro had some great years in Baltimore. And I guess all of those numbers will stand until someone other than a blogger says otherwise.

Palmeiro ranks No. 5 all-time for the Orioles in homeruns, No. 6 in slugging percentage, and No. 11 in RBIs. He is the team’s single-season leader for RBIs among left-handed batters (145 in 1996). He won the Silver Slugger award, honoring baseball’s best hitter at each position, in 1998. And while wearing an Orioles uniform he became one of only four major league players with 3,000 hits and 500 homeruns (Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Eddie Murray are the others).

Sadly, Palmeiro also was wearing an O's uniform when he got busted for steroids. At least it was a sharp-looking blue suit, and not the orange and black, when he wagged his finger and stated to members of Congress and, thanks to television and endless video replays, the world: “I have never used steroids. Period.”

Sure there’s a case to be made for postseason success in a particular uniform (Wouldn’t that make Boggs a Yankee?), along with any number of other defensible measures of what marks a player as "one of ours." But let's face it, what it ultimately comes down to is each fan’s individual connection with a player. It really is a Burger King matter. Like him, he’s one of yours. Hate him, he’s one of theirs. Anywhere in-between is not worth discussing. Baseball is like politics that way. There's just no convincing a partisan that he's wrong.

I had made Palmeiro "one of ours." I was at the Yard for the O's day game against the White Sox when word got out about Raffy's suspension. It felt like a cleat to the stomach. But can I, in good faith, now claim that he's no longer "one of ours"? Or would that hypocrisy invalidate my measure altogether?

It appears that I'm not the only one who can't make up my mind. The Orioles’ website has pictures of Raffy in both uniforms on the page that celebrates his 3,000 hit, 500 homerun accomplishment.

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