Wednesday, February 25, 2004

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Rafael Palmeiro walked into the Baltimore Orioles’ camp, shook hands with a couple of security guards, looked around and smiled.

“Just like I never left,” he said. “I’m back home.”

The Orioles held their first full-squad workout yesterday, and for Palmeiro it was a homecoming in more ways than one. It was his first practice session with Baltimore since 1998, and the sight of Fort Lauderdale Stadium conjured memories that extended even further into his past.

“It feels great,” Palmeiro said. “I grew up in Miami. I played a lot of games on this field when I was in high school, so I feel like I’m back home.”

Palmeiro hit 182 homers with the Orioles from 1994 to 1998 before signing a five-year contract with the Texas Rangers. After being victimized by the Rangers’ youth movement last year, Palmeiro jumped at the Orioles’ offer of $4.5million for 2004 — especially after they guaranteed him the job as the starting first baseman.

“I’ve wanted that role forever,” he said. “Last year I was ready to play every day, but the Rangers made a move to get some younger players in. So I kind of had to sacrifice a little bit.”

Upon joining the Orioles, Palmeiro benefited from a sacrifice of a different sort: Jay Gibbons gave up his No.25 and took No.31, the number he wore at Cal State-Los Angeles and for two years in the minor leagues.

“It was very nice of him to do that,” Palmeiro said. “It means a lot to me to be able to get 25 back. I owe him a lot; I just want to see what it’s going to take.”

Gibbons gave up the number without making any demands, but the switch did not go off without a hitch.

“It feels weird. Look at my shoes,” Gibbons said, pointing to the No. 25 on the back of his spikes.

The addition of Palmeiro means Gibbons can return to right field, the position he played for most of the 2003 season. He was switched to first base after the Orioles traded Jeff Conine to the Florida Marlins on Aug.31, but Gibbons’ move turned out to be only temporary.

“I’d rather be in right because I don’t have to relearn a position now,” Gibbons said.

Palmeiro, meanwhile, can’t wait to get reacquainted with playing first base, and he was eager to whip the ball around the horn with newcomer Miguel Tejada at shortstop, Melvin Mora at third base and Javy Lopez at catcher.

“It will take some time to come together, but it’s exciting to have all the new guys out there,” Palmeiro said. “I’m sure I’ll fit in nicely.”

The addition of Tejada, Lopez and Palmeiro should make the Orioles more competitive. The change already has caused far-reaching benefits for the rest of the team.

“It really is a different feeling. I don’t have to talk to you guys as much,” Gibbons said. “Really, though, it seems like it’s going to be a lot more fun. The buzz is a little different. I mean, look at our lineup from this year to last year. It’s night and day.”

Including that guy now wearing No.25.

“When I came here 10 years ago, I thought it would work out for me to stay here forever,” Palmeiro said. “Obviously it didn’t; I made the decision to go back home. I’ve got the opportunity now to come back and finish, hopefully as an Oriole. That would mean a lot to me. I couldn’t ask for a better situation.”

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