BALTIMORE (AP) – During a marvelous major league career that almost certainly will earn him a place in the Hall of Fame, Rafael Palmeiro has amassed numbers that attest to his power, consistency and longevity.

He has played in nearly 2,800 games, hit more than 560 home runs and batted .300 in six different seasons.

Through it all, though, Palmeiro often has been overlooked, overshadowed and unappreciated.

“He is a real talent, one that I think has really gone under the radar over the years, for whatever the reason,” New York Yankees star pitcher Randy Johnson said. “He’s hit a quiet 500 home runs.”

Palmeiro’s ability to crush a baseball is not the only product of his smooth, flawless, left-handed swing. He also hits for average, a quality that has brought him to the brink of one of the most exclusive groups in baseball history.

With his hit Monday, the 40-year-old Palmeiro stands seven hits short of joining Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Eddie Murray as the only players with 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. It is a feat that will certify the first baseman’s stature as one of the game’s great hitters.

Yet Palmeiro hasn’t received even a small portion of the accolades heaped upon players with far less impressive numbers.

“It doesn’t bother me,” he insisted. “I’ve done a good job in my career. As long as I can look at myself in the mirror and say I’ve given it all I got, that’s what matters to me.”

Palmeiro was a three-time All-American at Mississippi State, but 21 players were selected ahead of him in the 1985 amateur draft before the Chicago Cubs called his name. B.J. Surhoff, now a teammate of Palmeiro’s on the Orioles, was the No. 1 selection that year.

Surhoff has put together a solid career, but his statistics don’t even begin to measure up to those Palmeiro has compiled over the past two decades. “His numbers are almost unparalleled,” Surhoff said.

Fans apparently haven’t noticed. Palmeiro never has been voted to start in the All-Star game and hasn’t experienced a fraction of the adulation given to former Orioles star Cal Ripken, who played in a record 2,632 consecutive games but was not as threatening at the plate as Palmeiro.

“I had the pleasure to play with Raffy and watch him hit each and every day for several years. He is one of the most natural hitters I have ever seen, and he has one of the sweetest swings in the game,” Ripken said. “The fact that he reached 3,000 hits and 500 home runs shouldn’t surprise anyone. He will end up in the Hall of Fame one day, unless he plays forever, which seems like a real possibility.”

When he came to the United States from Cuba as a youngster in 1971, Palmeiro just hoped for a comfortable life in a foreign land.

Upon his arrival in Chicago in 1986, he didn’t foresee putting up lofty numbers or playing into his 40s.

“If anyone told you when they were 19 or 20 that they were going to hit 500 home runs and have 3,000 hits, they were just dreaming,” he said. “You don’t think about those things. You just want to establish yourself and try to make a career.”

What a career it has been. Palmeiro hit his 563rd homer Tuesday to tie Reggie Jackson for ninth place on the career list; he has hit at least 20 in each of the last 14 seasons and seems a shoo-in to do it again.

Palmeiro started the season with a lifetime batting average of .289, and while he’s no Ripken, he has played in at least 140 games in 16 seasons – including the last 10 in a row.

During that time, Palmeiro has operated in the shadow of such hard-hitting first basemen as Mo Vaughn, Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi and even former Mississippi State teammate Will Clark.

“In baseball, we all are very respectful of what he’s done,” Yankees manager Joe Torre said. “But he’s played a position where there have been a lot of big boomers that have gotten a lot of attention. Palmeiro is more of a line-drive guy that hits his home runs; there’s really not a lot of fanfare that goes with it. Still, to play that long at that level is very special.”

His peers have noticed, even if most baseball fans have not.

Palmeiro received some unwanted attention this spring when he was called before the House Committee on Government Reform to testify about steroid use in baseball. Jose Canseco, in a book, wrote that he once injected Palmeiro with a steroid when they were teammates in Texas.

Palmeiro emphatically denied ever using steroids, boldly challenging an accusation that had the potential to stain an otherwise pristine career.

“There is nothing hovering over him other than what came out in Canseco’s book, and you take that with a grain of salt,” Johnson said. “He’s just a real good ballplayer. If you were taking a first baseman, he’d probably be one of your first picks because of what he’s capable of doing.”

Palmeiro is on the verge of doing what no exclusively left-handed batter has done before: joining the 3,000-500 club. Mays and Aaron hit right-handed, and Murray was a switch-hitter.

Asked to assess the significance of his feat, Palmeiro answered in typically understated fashion.

“I don’t know yet,” he said. “I guess I’ll talk about it when we get there.”

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