Perhaps because he never played for a World Series team or in a big baseball city, Palmeiro was consistently under-appreciated by most fans and statistics-nuts. Despite his great numbers throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, the dashing Cuban first baseman played in the same league as bigger-name first sackers — like Mark McGwire and Frank Thomas — who commanded national attention. Only after Palmeiro slugged his 400th home run on September 23, 2000 was his name truly bandied about as a future of Hall-of-Famer.
A June 1985 first-round draft choice, Palmeiro (pronounced Palm-AIR-oh) showed excellent power in a half-season trial with the Chicago Cubs in 1987, hitting 14 taters in 221 at-bats. His clout dropped off considerably in 1988 (eight homers in 580 at-bats), and though he hit .307 and made the All-Star team, he drove in only 53 runs and had no game-winning RBIs. Though his defense in the outfield was perfect, at thre plate he was dismissed as simply an opposite-field singles hitter.
Acquired by the Texas Rangers in December 1988 to replace the departed first baseman Pete O’Brien, Palmeiro slumped badly after starting the 1989 campaign with a bang. But the following season, he began his ascension into the ranks of premier sluggers by setting or tying career highs in every offensive category except runs. With the exception of a dip in his batting average in 1992, Palmeiro continued to improve across the board — in 1993, he hit 37 longjacks and drove in 105 RBIs, a level of production he would match for the next several years.
In Raffy’s first year with the Rangers, he made 12 errors at first base. But by the end of the ’90’s, Palmeiro had mastered the intricacies of playing the position, scooping up three consecutive Golden Gloves from 1997-99 — the final year while playing all but 28 of his games at DH. Another testament to his rock-solid dependability was the fact that Palmeiro spent no time on the disabled list; with the exception of the strike-shortened 1994 season, he averaged just under 157 games a year throughout his career.
Though Palmeiro expressed his deep desire to stay in Texas, the Rangers instead signed former Mississippi State teammate Will Clark. The scorned slugger jumped to the Baltimore Orioles in December 1993, and continued to live up to his 1993 numbers while helping to lead the club to the LCS in 1996 and ’97. Though the team fell short of a pennant both times, Palmeiro slugged of three dingers, drove in seven runs and scored six times in the two series.
As the once-mighty Orioles began to erode, Palmeiro returned to the Rangers as a free agent in December 1998, switching teams with his fading rival Clark. At the age of 35, he set career highs in batting average (.324), homers (47), and RBIs (148) in 1999, escorting the Rangers to the ALDS. He showed no sign of weakening the following year, bashing 39 dingers with 120 ribbies.
Despite his baseball feats, one of Palmeiro’s greatest thrills was when he was finally re-united with his older brother Jose 21 years after they were separated. Raffy had fled Cuba in 1971 with his parents and two other brothers, and only came face-to-face with Jose when the elder sibling left the island in 1992. When the Orioles flew to Cuba for an exhibition game in March 1999, Palmeiro, who had left Baltimore for Texas a month before, vehemently opposed the idea. “My family fled Cuba 28 years ago because my parents wanted a better life for us, myself, and my brothers,” the Ranger said. “For me to go back there goes against everything we stand for and believe in.”