Shaping the Rangers #3: Rafael Palmeiro

John Vittas continues on his look at the 20 biggest transactions in Texas Rangers history. This time, its a look back at the 1989 trade for one of the biggest sluggers in franchise history.

December 5, 1988: Tbe Rangers trade Mitch Williams, Paul Kilgus, Steve Wilson, Curtis Wilkerson, and minor leaguers Luis Benitez and Pablo Delgado to the Chicago Cubs for Rafael Palmeiro, Jamie Moyer, and Drew Hall.

Long before Rafael Palmeiro joined the ranks of those who will be remembered for their exploits off the field rather than on it, the first baseman was busy fighting for the attention of the American League while with the Rangers.

It certainly wasn't an easy task for Palmeiro, who became quite a prominent contributor to the Rangers lineup in the early 1990's yet struggled to steal the headlines from other heavy hitters around baseball.

But Palmeiro, a first-round draft choice of the Cubs in 1985, first arrived in Chicago and almost immediately raised at least a few eyebrows.

His major league debut came in the form of a late-season call-up in September of 1986 as a left-fielder in a matchup with the Philadelphia Phillies – a clash between two clubs toiling at the bottom of the National League East. It wasn't a glamorous first experience in the big leagues for Palmeiro, who saw action with the Cubs over a good portion of the final month of the season and collected 18 hits. A year later, Palmeiro reached the big leagues in June and remained there for the rest of the season. This time, he demonstrated plenty of pop in his half-season trial with the Cubs, connecting for 14 homeruns.

Palmeiro suffered through some growing pains of sorts in 1988 – his first full season in the majors. Although he hit over .300 for the Cubs, his run production and power numbers fell off dramatically. While Palmeiro scattered 41 doubles, five triples, and eight homers for his squad, manager Don Zimmer also saw a hitter who had driven in only 53 runs, including none that had brought in the game-winning run.

His team, meanwhile, had other areas of concern. With Rich Gossage apparently near the end of his career as one of baseball's elite closers, the Cubs had no sure-fire stopper to close down the opposition late in the game. As a team, they had the worst record in the majors for squandering saves.

But that would soon change.

At that year's Winter Meetings in Atlanta, the Cubs were hell-bent on solidifying the back end of their bullpen and had their sights set on Mitch Williams, a southpaw with a fastball that could reach the upper 90's but occasionally terrible control. Williams had set a rookie record with 80 appearances for the Rangers in 1986, and pitched 85 times in 1987, but saved only 14 games over the two seasons. He also had an earned run average of well over four runs a game and walked 47 batters in 68 innings, but he also owned the highest save percentage among American League relievers.

The Cubs were also infatuated with pitcher Paul Kilgus, whose grittiness on the mound served as a moderate compensation for a lack of velocity. Along with picking up a career high 12 wins for the Rangers in 1988, Kilgus came within six outs of a perfect game in a late-May affair against the Minnesota Twins.

As for the Rangers, their ears perked up when news of the availability of Rafael Palmeiro billowed through the hotel lobby. But a proposed deal quickly hit a snag thanks to a rule put into effect by a current Ranger. It involved minor-leaguers Pablo Delgado and Luis Benitez, both of whom had been signed less than a year before. The "Incaviglia rule", as it was known, stated that a player had to spend at least one year with the organization that drafted him before he could be dealt. However, both players were signed as free agents and not drafted, and the Rangers immediately raced to the office of former commissioner Peter Ueberroth to get a final ruling on the deal.

The green light was given, and a deal was reached between the two teams, but it was a bitter pill to swallow for the principal players involved. Upset with leaving Chicago, Palmeiro didn't return phone calls from reporters for the first forty-eight hours following the deal. Williams was also traumatized somewhat over leaving the Rangers organization, and was filled with plenty of heartfelt compliments to deliver to both the team and fans.

The trade was gargantuan one.

Going to the Cubs were Williams, Kilgus, a switch-hitting infielder who had trouble finding his niche in Curtis Wilkerson, and minor leaguers Benitez, Delgado, and Steve Wilson. In return, the Rangers received Palmeiro and left-handed pitchers Jamie Moyer and Drew Hall.

Much like the 1989 Rangers and their 17-5 record through the month of April, the first baseman's inaugural season in the American League also started off with a bang as Palmeiro hit well over .300 for the first two months of the season. But as the calendar flipped to summer, his average plummeted back to earth and so did the Rangers, who would go on to reach the 80-win plateau for only the second time in their last ten years. It was also a rocky first year in the infield for Palmeiro. In his first full-time job as a first baseman, he committed 12 errors on defense.

But the following season, "Raffy" began his ascension into the ranks of premier sluggers by setting or tying career highs in every offensive category except runs. He was also the only regular starter in the Rangers lineup to hit over .300. And one year later, things really began to click for Palmeiro and the Rangers.

Dubbed "the Three Amigos", Palmeiro along with Ruben Sierra and Julio Franco became a formidable trio in the middle of the Rangers lineup. Each delivered more than 200 hits, scored over 100 runs, and hit better than .300. Together, the three teammates helped the Rangers score more runs than any team in baseball, but the pitching staff was decimated by injuries and the defense shabby at best, and the club stumbled to a third place finish.

But Palmeiro just kept getting better. In 1993, he set a club record for runs and was one of three Rangers with 30 homers. Together with Juan Gonzalez and Dean Palmer, the Rangers led the majors with 181 homeruns as a team but couldn't keep up with a scorching hot White Sox ballclub and finished eight games behind them in second place at season's end.

Things between the Rangers and Palmeiro reached a rough point following the conclusion of the 1993 season, when he and the team parted ways. Angry with the Rangers over their failure to sign him to a new contract, Palmeiro wasn't shy about voicing his opinions and spoke openly of his role as a liaison between various groups of players in the clubhouse.

"I felt they treated me with no respect," he told local media members after leaving Texas.

"They didn't appreciate what I did for them."

Not long after saying goodbye to Palmeiro, the Rangers found a new first baseman in Will Clark. Again, Palmeiro wasn't pleased, claiming the club signed Clark because he was "a more marketable" then he was. It was the first of a barrage of nasty, bitter comments directed at Clark and his former ballclub.

Nevertheless, Palmeiro was headed eastward to join the Baltimore Orioles. Once there, he continued to live up to his 1993 numbers while helping to lead his new team to the League Championship Series in 1996 and 1997. Although they fell short of a pennant both times, Palmeiro slugged three dingers, drove in seven runs and scored six times in the two series. But once the Orioles also began slipping, Palmeiro once again was headed elsewhere.

Palmeiro would mend his fences and rejoin the Rangers in the winter of 1998, essentially swapping places with recently-turned-free-agent Will Clark who was courted and signed by the O's. His production failed to diminish even the slightest bit, and the slugging first baseman reached the 500 homerun plateau in front of the home crowd on Mother's Day in 2003.

Unfortunately for the career and legacy of Rafael Palmeiro, the accolades and congratulatory pats on the back seemingly end there. Beginning with a simple mention in Jose Canseco's 2005 book, and continuing on with a finger-wagging appearance in front of Congress along with an inclusion in last year's Mitchell Report, Palmeiro finds himself surrounded by storm clouds with almost no end in sight.

During his playing days, he was a success story – born in Cuba, raised in the United States on baseball, a star, a millionaire because of his swing, and one of the all-time greats. But with his image forever tarnished, the memory of this former Ranger great will likely never be the same.


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