05/11/2003 6:00 PM ET
Raffy's sweet swing came naturally
From first homer to 500th, quiet stroke works wonders
ARLINGTON -- Rafael Palmeiro was just eight years old the first time he hit a home run.
It came in his second at-bat in his first-ever youth league game, and of course, the left-handed hitter
smashed it over the fence in right field. His father, Jose Palmeiro -- who had a nice left-handed swing himself -- had passed on the art of hitting to his son, and he had a little something to do with his boy's first homer.
"Playing baseball is all that I ever wanted to do with my life," Palmeiro, 38, said. "I could always hit, even as a kid."
Thirty years later, the skinny youngster with that cool thin mustache from Miami is all grown up. The sweet swing he developed as a young boy has carried him to 500 home runs and the annals of Major League Baseball history. His next stop could be 600 homers.
"He's a home run hitter, always has been," said San Francisco's Barry Bonds, one of only four members of the 600 Homer Club. "He was that way in college along with Will Clark (at Mississippi State). A good hitter is a good hitter. He's strong and he has a good swing. He's been a home run hitter since he was born."
Bonds could be right and if any current player would know what it takes to be a home run hitter, it would be him. As for Palmeiro, Bonds says that other than hard work and experience, he doesn't really know how or why he hits so many home runs. "When you can hit, you can hit," he has said on more than one occasion.
Palmeiro's peers have other explanations.
"He's like (golfers) Freddy Couples or Davis Love," Alex Rodriguez said. "He is so smooth and the swing looks effortless. It's awesome to watch."
"He's got great hips and great explosion," said Arizona first baseman Mark Grace, who played with Palmeiro while with the Cubs in the mid-1980s. "He's just a smart, smart hitter. He knows when to try for it and when not to. He's a great hitter."
Rangers manager Buck Showalter said he has a new appreciation for the veteran and feels honored to witness the infielder's home run trek. The skipper has his own explanation for Palmeiro's success.
"He has great hands, great wrists and he very seldom gets himself out. He knows what he has to do to be successful," Showalter said. "His wrists explode through the strike zone, and his swing is not one of those max-effort swings. Raffy does not try to hit it 500 feet, he tries to hit it 10 feet over the fence -- they both count the same. Not that he is a guy who is scraping the fences, but he just finds a way to get it done and he trusts himself."
With 104 RBIs in 2002, Palmeiro recorded his eighth consecutive season with at least 100 RBIs. He is one of only 11 players with at least 450 home runs, 2,500 hits and 500 doubles, and has hit 35 or more home runs and more than 100 RBIs in each of his last eight seasons. He is also one of 12 players with at least 20 home runs in 12 consecutive seasons.
By Jesse Sanchez / MLB.com
He has done it all with an exceptionally quiet but powerful swing, which goes well with his demeanor.
"He's just got that natural ability to react to the ball well, inside or outside," Arizona outfielder Luis
Gonzalez said. "He makes it look easy just because of the way he swings. He doesn't put a lot of effort into it, but the ball just jumps off his bat. He's got a great idea of that he's doing up there."
At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Palmeiro is not exactly biggest slugger in the league and he is often dwarfed when he stands side-by-side with the like of Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Jim Thome. Then again, that happens to most players.
Palmeiro is not the most intimidating hitter in the league -- or is he?
"Home runs are an art. You don't have to be burly to hit home runs," Thome said. "You can have a home run swing and do it the right way and that's what he's done. His swing is really good."
Palmeiro's swing is so good that legend has it that the Rangers built The Ballpark in Arlington and the home run porch in right field just for him in 1994. But after five seasons in Texas from 1989 to 1993, he signed with Baltimore. He rejoined the Rangers in 1999.
"He's got one of the best swings in baseball. He's not a Mark McGwire stature, or Sammy Sosa or Barry Bonds," Gonzalez said. "You look at those guys and they're built like home run hitters. He's built well, but he's just got that sweet, natural swing -- the swing that every left-handed hitter dies for. He always looks effortless when he swings."
Just the way his dad taught him.
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for
MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
"Home runs are an art. You don't have to be burly to hit home runs. You can have a home run
swing and ... his swing is really good."
-- Jim Thome on Rafael Palmeiro