BALTIMORE – No left-handed batter in the history of baseball has showed the consistency and power of Baltimore Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, whose entry into the elite 3,000-500 club is a testament to a stellar career that should gain him first-ballot entry into the Hall of Fame.

When Palmeiro got his 3,000th hit off Seattle’s Joel Pineiro on Friday night, he joined Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Eddie Murray as the only players in baseball history with at least 3,000 hits and 500 home runs.

“With numbers like that, maybe I belong in their group,” Palmeiro said recently, “but not their class. I know I’m not there.”

Perhaps. But unlike the others, Palmeiro isn’t done yet. He is also the only one in the quartet to swing exclusively from the left side of the plate.

There’s no way to accurately determine the greatest left-handed hitter in baseball history, but an argument can be made for Palmeiro, who now has 346 more hits than Ted Williams, nearly 450 more home runs than Ty Cobb and 127 more hits than Babe Ruth.

Some may scoff at the notion of placing Palmeiro among the game’s premier hitters, mainly because he has attained those lofty numbers with very little fanfare. But his peers have the utmost respect for his work ethic – and his prowess at the plate.

“Consistency. That’s the only way you accomplish numbers like that,” New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said. “You have to be very consistent for a long time, and that’s what he’s done.”

As he neared the 3,000 mark, Palmeiro squirmed when doing interviews about the significance of the event. He doesn’t like to talk much, especially when the subject is himself.

“I haven’t really thought about it,” he said. “The day will come, and then we’ll move on.”

Murray couldn’t have put it any better.

“Eddie and Raffy were similar in that they were very quiet and extremely productive,” former Oriole Cal Ripken said. “They are two of the best hitters of all time, and I was honored to call them both teammates.”

By the time he’s done, the 40-year-old Palmeiro will rank in the top 10 in many key offensive categories, including homers, extra-base hits and total bases. He is ninth on the career home run list, and his 3,000th hit tied him with Roberto Clemente for 25th in that category.

Palmeiro isn’t merely staggering to the finish of a great career. He’s been hitting cleanup in a formidable Baltimore lineup, and ranks among the team leaders in home runs and RBIs.

“When you look at his numbers, maybe they’re not eye-popping like they were at one time,” Yankees manager Joe Torre said. “But he’s far from hanging on. He’s got such a simple stroke; there’s not a lot of moving parts.”

For Palmeiro, this season has been special for reasons that have nothing to do with his quest to join the exclusive 3,000-500 fraternity. His two boys, Patrick, 15, and Preston, 10, have become fixtures in the Baltimore clubhouse when the Orioles are home.

Before games, Palmeiro often hits each of them grounders or plays catch in front of the Baltimore dugout.

“Other than playing on the field during games, the best experience to me is when I can bring my kids and they can be a part of this,” Palmeiro said. “This is not going to last forever. I may be done here in the next few years and I want them to be a part of this. Being around grown men, big league professional players, it rubs off on them in terms of maturity.”

Being around Palmeiro has been beneficial to his teammates, too.

“In terms of home runs and RBIs, he’s done it more consistently than anybody else in baseball,” Orioles outfielder B.J. Surhoff said. “I think the biggest thing that stands out to me is his durability and the number of games he’s been able to play every single year. That really says a lot.”

Ripken was known as the Iron Man, but there’s something to be said for Palmeiro’s endurance over a 20-year career. Except for the strike-shortened 1994 season, he’s played in at least 143 games every year since 1987.

About the only thing he hasn’t done is participate in a World Series, but Palmeiro hasn’t given up hope. Thanks in part to his standout play this year, the Orioles have become contenders after a run of seven straight losing seasons.

A week ago, someone asked him if he would trade his membership in the 3,000-500 club for a World Series ring.

“I don’t have either one of them, so I don’t know which feels better,” Palmeiro replied. “Maybe I’ll have both after this year.”

One down, one to go.

AP-ES-07-15-05 2336EDT


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