I remember the first time I made a layup over my dad. I’d scored before when playing basketball against him, but even as a kid, I could tell when an adult was letting me win at something. This time, however, on a gravel driveway that made dribbling incredibly difficult, I knew that my dad was actually trying to prevent me from scoring—and I scored anyway. I never did beat him one-on-one; around the time I got good enough to pull it off, he switched over to golf. But I’ll always remember that moment—after years of feeling like a boy playing against a man, I felt like our matchup was finally between equals.
I bet Patrick Palmeiro wishes his dad would switch to golf. The 28-year-old son of Rafael Palmeiro is now his teammate: In May, the pair signed with the Cleburne Railroaders, a team in the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball. Rafael is eligible to join the AARP, but instead is spending his time playing in the AAIPB.
At the time of the signing, this seemed like a nice human-interest story; father-and-son teammates! How cute! I hope they take pictures together! But the story hasn’t played to script, because Papa Palmeiro is raking.
Goodness, Rafael Palmeiro is hitting .291/.419/.523 with 6 HR and a 21/18 K/BB in 27 games in the American Association. What even.— Nathaniel Stoltz (@stoltzs_words) July 19, 2018
Zach Walters, who played in MLB two years ago and is TWENTY-FIVE years younger, is hitting .273/.304/.427 in the same league.
I learned about Palmeiro’s return to baseball via the above tweet. When I saw it cross my feed, I assumed Stoltz was referring to a Rafael Palmeiro Jr. This is an experience to which anyone who watched baseball in the 1990s can relate; take, for instance, Delino DeShields Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr., or Raul Mondesi Jr. But no—Stoltz was writing about the guy who retired in 2005.
Father-son teammate pairings have happened in the past. The most famous one is Ken Griffey Sr. and Jr., who smashed back-to-back home runs during a game in 1990. The Palmeiros’ situation is more akin to when 50-year-old Roger Clemens joined his son Koby on the independent-league Sugar Land Skeeters in 2012, pitching eight scoreless innings over two games. As much as Clemens still had it, he never seemed like he was seriously considering a comeback—he just showed up for a couple of Skeeters home games to hang out with his son and boost ticket sales.
Palmeiro, on the other hand, has become a full-time Cleburne Railroader. In December, he told reporters he legitimately wants to revive his MLB career more than a decade after it ended. He’s played in 27 games, including road contests in Wichita, Kansas, Lincoln, Nebraska, and Gary, Indiana. And although he’s going gray, Palmeiro is leading the Railroaders in OPS by a sizable margin. As Stoltz points out, Palmeiro is actually outhitting legitimate MLB prospects in the same league. Here, watch this clip of him hitting a dinger:
Palmeiro’s slash line is .291/.419/.523, which is roughly in line with his career MLB averages of .288/.371/.515. The AAIPB offers a different level of competition, but again—he’s 53. He’s like Baseball Uncle Drew.
And Palmeiro is vastly outperforming his son. Rafael’s batting average is 30 points higher than Patrick’s, his OBP is 104 points higher, and his slugging percentage is 101 points higher. Rafael is also outhitting his other son, the 23-year-old Preston, whom the Orioles selected in the seventh round of the 2016 draft. Preston has a slash line of .255/.304/.411 in high A.
I see two possible motivators behind Rafael’s comeback attempt. The first is that he truly believes he can make the majors, and wants to close his career on a high note. Palmeiro was mired in controversy in the early 2000s, as he famously testified before Congress that he had never taken steroids, and then later tested positive for steroids. Despite having an incredible résumé, Palmeiro has seen his ties to the sport’s steroid era ruin his chances of making the Hall of Fame, as he dropped off the ballot in 2014, just four years after becoming eligible. He’s spoken wistfully about this, hoping that someday a less steroid-averse group of voters could reconsider him. A 2017 CBS Sports article suggested that his Hall of Fame eligibility clock could reset if he broke back into the bigs. It’s not clear whether that’s true—the issue has never come up, because no player has ever had his eligibility run out and then made it all the way back to the majors.
The second possibility seems more likely, though. Palmeiro just wants to make it clear to his son that he will never, ever be better at baseball than his old man—not even when Rafael is literally an old man. It’s already hard for the sons of great athletes to grow up in the shadows of their parents, and at 28, with minimal major league prospects, Patrick presumably knew that he’d never surpass his father’s baseball accomplishments. But now he has to deal with the fact his dad is still better than him, and what little chance he had of making his own name is gone: The Railroaders announced the Palmeiros’ signing with the headline “RAILROADERS SIGN RAFAEL PALMEIRO, SON.”
Also, not to point any fingers, but the most plausible explanation for a 53-year-old suddenly stepping back into the batter’s box after a decade-plus away and not only looking competent, but also absolutely mashing the ball is steroids—just, like, barrels of the stuff. I’m not legally allowed to say that Raffy is roiding out of his mind to prove to his son that he’ll never surpass him at baseball, but I can say this: Doing 700 gallons of steroids to outslug your adult son would be the strongest Dad Move of all time.