The answer is there on Preston Palmeiro’s face.
It’s the pure, unbridled joy in his eyes-wide, mouth-trying-to-swallow-the-moon expression.
You have to search a little deeper for the question.
Why do you play baseball when you have to live up to your famous dad’s legacy and be haunted by the shadow of his infamous exit from the game?
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Just look at Palmeiro’s face in that picture from last May in N.C. State’s 5-4 win over Miami in the ACC tournament in Durham.
There it is in that moment, his moment, after an unconventional “Little League home run” to put the Wolfpack in the championship game.
“It was such a fluke play,” Wolfpack first baseman Palmeiro recently said, trying to explain his emotions after he scored the game-winning run in the 12th inning.
“It was unbelievable that something so ridiculous could happen.”
And, with the benefit of a year to process it all – the hit, the win and the moment – Palmeiro adds there is more to it.
“It’s nice to have something for people to talk about instead of my dad,” Palmeiro said. “To create my own thing.”
Palmeiro has made his own mark at N.C. State as one of the team’s best hitters the past three seasons. A three-year starter, he leads the Wolfpack in RBI (48) and doubles (18) and is second on the team with a .327 batting average and home runs (8) this season.
The junior leads the Wolfpack, the No. 5 seed, into pool play in the ACC tournament on Wednesday against No. 4 Florida State.
Palmeiro’s sweet lefthanded swing is unmistakably a gift from his father, Rafael, one of only five players in Major League Baseball history with more than 3,000 hits and 500 home runs.
It’s nice to have something for people to talk about instead of my dad. To create my own thing.
NC State’s Preston Palmeiro
But the end of Rafael Palmeiro’s 20-year MLB career in 2005 still overshadows his accomplishments and serves as fodder for opposing fans who taunt Preston and his older brother, Patrick, who plays pro ball for an independent league team in Texas.
Palmeiro served a 10-game suspension in Aug. 2005 after he tested positive for Stanozolol, a synthetic steroid, five months after he went to Washington and told a Congressional committee: “I have never used steroids, period. I don’t know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never.”
Baseball’s so-called “Steroid Era” from the early 1990s until the mid-2000s ensnared bigger names than Palmeiro – Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire to name three – but Palmeiro was an easy target after the Congressional spectacle.
“When I got suspended, it was only 10 games, but I got branded,” Palmeiro said. “This is our poster child and this is who we are going to use to clean baseball up.”
Rafael Palmeiro watched N.C. State play Duke in a late April game at Doak Field when he talked about the end of his career. Just days before, MLB had suspended Miami Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon 80 games for testing positive for two performance-enhancing drugs.
“Some kid (Gordon) got 80 games the other day and the reaction on Twitter was like, ‘Eh, whatever,’ ” Palmeiro said.
There is still clearly some unresolved bitterness in Palmeiro for how his career ended, which he describes as the “worst possible scenario.”
“I was sent home,” Palmeiro said. “I was basically kicked out of baseball. It destroyed my life and I’m sure their (Patrick and Preston) life.”
But there was a trade-off to Palmeiro’s exit, a silver-lining 11 years in the making. After his career ended, he poured his efforts into teaching his sons, who were then 15 and 10, respectively, how to hit.
“Something good came of it in a way,” Preston Palmeiro said. “He shared everything he had with me and Patrick.”
Specifically, Rafael Palmeiro has taken an interest in N.C. State. “Invested” is how Patrick Palmeiro describes his father’s connection to the Wolfpack baseball team
“He really cares for those kids on the team,” Patrick Palmeiro said.
Fox Sports recently wrote a long article about Palmeiro’s life after baseball. He was wearing an N.C. State hat in one of the main photographs with the story on Fox’s website.
When the elder Palmeiro talks about N.C. State’s team, he uses the pronouns “we” and “us.”
Preston Palmeiro doesn’t remember much about how his dad’s paying career ended with the Baltimore Orioles. He does remember going to a game before his dad’s suspension and then not going back the rest of the summer.
“Baseball was an everyday thing for me my whole life,” Palmeiro said. “And then one day it was gone.”
Most of Palmeiro’s memories of his dad’s career are great ones. Patrick and Preston grew up in Colleyville, Texas, and spent a lot of time in the Texas Rangers’ clubhouse during Rafael Palmeiro’s second stint with the Rangers from 1999 to 2003.
“They had A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez) and I-Rod (Ivan Rodriguez) and some really big-name players,” Patrick Palmeiro said. “To us, they were just guys we were hanging out with.
“I mean, we really felt like we were a part of the Texas Rangers, even though I was 10 and Preston was 5. All the guys took care of Preston because he was the youngest.”
Little Preston absorbed some hitting tips that have helped to this day. N.C. State junior catcher Andrew Knizner, one of Palmeiro’s best friends on the team, said Palmeiro has an innate awareness of hitting situations.
“He understands what the pitcher is going to throw,” Knizner said. “And he only swings at strikes. He just knows how to take the right pitches.”
Patrick, who plays third base and hits righty, jokes that Preston, a lefty who plays the same position as his father, was “just born with that swing.”
But to be sure, it has taken time to perfect the perfect hitting stroke.
“He works hard at it,” Knizner said.
Whenever Rafael is in Raleigh, there are extra batting sessions to be had. Brock Deatherage, N.C. State’s sophomore right fielder, was recently looking for Preston to go and eat lunch. Deatherage texted Palmeiro, who said his dad was in town.
“I know exactly what they’re doing, they’re down at the cage hitting,” Deatherage said. “Every chance he gets to hit with his dad, he takes it. I don’t blame Preston for wanting to hit like his dad. It’s amazing to listen to his dad talk about hitting.”
Fueling the fire
If only it were that simple – learning about hitting from one of the game’s greats – for Palmeiro.
There are still fans, most recently at Clemson and earlier this season at Coastal Carolina, who will remind him about his father’s missteps.
“Hey, you on steroids like your dad?” one Coastal Carolina fan asked early in the Wolfpack’s 13-10 win on Feb. 20 this season.
“The first couple of times it happened it was hard,” Palmeiro said of the taunts. “The more I hear it, the more I’ve learned to brush it off.”
Palmeiro was 4-for-5 with a double, home run and four RBI against Coastal Carolina.
“That was the best game I had all year,” Palmeiro said. “I was like just keep talking you’re fueling the fire.”
Palmeiro’s N.C. State teammates marvel at his ability to focus and block out distractions.
“He’s so mentally strong,” Deatherage said. “He has been putting up with it his whole life. I wouldn’t know how to handle that.”
Palmeiro’s laid back demeanor also makes him popular with his teammates.
“He’s always positive and upbeat,” Knizner said. “He’s just a really good dude to have on the team.”
His personality is another trait he shares with his dad.
“It’s kind of weird, before the regional (at Texas Christian last year), I went to dinner at their house,” Knizner said. “Him and his dad, they are exactly the same person.”
‘Throw was offline’
Almost a year to the day later, N.C. State will get another shot at Miami in the ACC tournament on Thursday.
Palmeiro’s “Little League home run” will be replayed. He doesn’t need the footage to remember what happened.
Palmeiro led off the bottom of the 12th inning with a shot off the wall in left field at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
“I was out at second base,” Palmeiro said. “Then I saw the throw was offline.”
It was and as the ball scooted down the first base line, Palmeiro headed to third and N.C. State assistant coach Chris Hart waved him home.
“Preston is touching the bag and it’s not that far of a throw,” said Rafael Palmeiro, who was at the DBAP that night. “I’m thinking he’s going to get thrown out at home by 20 feet if it’s a good throw.”
The throw was good but Miami catcher Zack Collins tried to make the tag before he had the ball.
Palmeiro slid around Collins and then got up and spiked his helmet. Before his teammates could swarm him, he was able to flash that big celebratory smile.
“We won the game and put us in the championship game,” Rafael Palmeiro said. “That was big for him and the team. He’ll remember that forever.”
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio