Imagine, if you will, being selected in the MLB Draft out of high school, filled with optimism and excitement over beginning one’s arduous journey through the minor leagues. Through all the preparation, drills, workouts, and periods of extreme ups coupled with long stretches of self-doubt, the one constant that remains is such: make it to the major leagues.
Commitment and the drive to success fuels players to reach their ultimate ambitions, though, at times these commitments can lead to lean and challenging moments.
Dean Palmer knows of such challenges.
Drafted by the Texas Rangers in the third-round of the 1986 Draft out of Florida High School in Tallahassee, Palmer worked tirelessly to prove his keep in the Rangers’ organization. As he struggled through his first few minor league seasons, learning to adapt with players who were further advanced and had prior experience in college, Palmer learned the nuances of the game while continuing to mature both physically and mentally.
His breakout season came in 1989 while he was playing with Double-A Tulsa. Palmer played in a career high 133 games, swatting 25 home runs, driving in 90 runs, and stealing fifteen bases. He credits the consistent at-bats he received for his increased production at the plate.
While Palmer was enjoying better success at the dish, even receiving a major league call-up in September of 1989, a simple pull-up exercise in 1991 while playing with Triple-A Oklahoma City would forever play a role in the longevity of his career.
While stationed in Oklahoma City, Palmer would frequent the local gym which was conveniently located right down the street from where he was staying. While doing pull-ups, Palmer felt a sharp POP in his neck, with Palmer describing it as a terrible spasm. With difficulty even getting to the ballpark for that night’s game, the team decided to give Palmer some rest, in hopes that whatever the problem was would heal on its own.
Palmer was recalled to the majors before he played another game with Oklahoma City, with the spasms essentially easing enough for him to play. He enjoyed success with a young Rangers team in the mid-nineties, an integral member of the team’s first postseason appearance in 1996. Palmer also posted one of his finest overall seasons of his career in ’96, slugging 38 home runs, with 107 RBIs, a .348 on-base percentage and an OPS+ of 114.
Throughout his career the pains would reoccur at times, an annoyance that Palmer could not rid himself of. The pain persisted and got so bad while he was with the Detroit Tigers that an MRI reveled two herniated levels in his neck. Palmer had the two levels fused, in hopes that he would be able to prolong his career. However, Palmer experienced nerve damage and a loss of strength in his right arm, and only played in 87 games from 2001-03.
Palmer would play his final major league game on May 9, 2003 against Tampa Bay, going 1-for-4 at the plate. He attempted a comeback in ’05 with Detroit, appearing in spring training with the team. It was then that Palmer knew his playing days were over.
In total, Palmer amassed 275 career home runs, 231 doubles, a .796 lifetime OPS in 1,357 games over 14 seasons. He made one All Star team (’98) and was awarded two Silver Slugger Awards (’98, ’99). In retrospect, it’s quite astonishing that Palmer was able to have the longevity that he did, considering how volatile neck injuries can be.
Dean Palmer reflects on his career fondly, fortunate that he was able to live out his dream for as long as he did. He remains involved with baseball, having spent several years after his retirement from the majors coaching at the junior college and high school levels. He’s contemplated one day returning to the majors as a coach, though, for now he’s content enjoying the family life and watching his children finish high school.
I had the privilege of speaking to Palmer where we discussed getting drafted by the Rangers, his first major league manager, Bobby Valentine, and who were the toughest pitchers he faced in his career.
MMO: Who were some of your favorite players growing up?
Dean: I grew up in North Florida in Tallahassee, and back then the Braves were the team on TBS every night. I was a Braves fan and Dale Murphy was kind of my guy that I really liked watching. That was the same era with Pete Rose and Mike Schmidt. I’d watch most of the National League teams (while) watching the Braves every night, so those seemed to be the guys that I really gravitated to. But really Dale Murphy, just watching him every night they were on, was the guy that I followed most.
MMO: You were selected in the third-round by the Texas Rangers in the 1986 MLB Draft, what are your memories from that day? Did you have any notion that the Rangers were looking to take you with that pick?
Dean: Well yeah, I knew the Rangers were going to draft me, and also the Cincinnati Reds had interest in me as well. They were going to draft me if I didn’t go to Texas. It’s funny because Reggie Jefferson, he’s from Tallahassee, too, we played with and against each other growing up here.
I was a third-round pick with Texas and Cincinnati had a third-round pick after Texas and he went to Cincinnati. I know they were both interested in us. I think it could’ve gone either way; we had both signed letters of intent to play in college as well. He went on to have a great career and I think he’s actually an agent now.
I knew the Rangers were really interested in me and my high school coach played with Bryan Lamb, who actually worked for the Mets, I think. He was one of the cross-checkers for the Rangers and so he knew my high school baseball coach and I think my coach called him and said, “Hey man, you need to come check this kid out.” So that’s how the Rangers’ interest kind of started.
I was a young kid, a young senior, and I think I was actually the youngest player drafted that year. It was exciting yet scary at the same time, not knowing what to expect going down to rookie ball. I was a young high school kid and you’re facing a lot of guys that spent three years in college, so it was a big adjustment and actually a lot of struggles.
MMO: You mentioned the struggles early on in you minor league career, but then in 1989 with Double-A Tulsa, you broke out: Hitting 25 home runs, driving in 90 runs and stealing 15 bags. Do you remember what seemed to click for you that year?
Dean: Absolutely. My first rookie ball season I had never seen good pitching like that every day. Guys throwing good breaking balls and sliders, you just don’t see that often in high school. Then the next year I go to the South Atlantic League in Gastonia (North Carolina) and struggled with it again. Then I went to the Florida State League in Port Charlotte and that’s when I started figuring stuff out a little bit.
I physically got stronger, too. I was a young 175-pound kid coming out of high school and still had some filling out to do and room to strengthen.
It really started there and then that Tulsa year is when it really started coming together for me. It’s really just getting at-bats and experience. I went to winter ball one year in the Dominican after that Double-A season and got even more at-bats. For a young player like that coming out of high school you’re not getting, what a little over 100 at-bats?
As a young player that’s the most important thing, just to get them playing every day and get a bunch of at-bats. After a while you start figuring things out, figuring out how guys are getting you out and making adjustments.
MMO: September 1, 1989 is your major league debut date. What do you remember most from that day?
Dean: I remember striking out with the bases loaded (laughs). I think it was the bottom of the ninth and I had the chance to win it but I was just so jacked up. What happened was late in the game – Harold Baines was our DH in Texas – and that was the first day I got there. It was me and Juan Gonzalez that got called up. I pinch-ran for Baines after he got on base, and I pinch ran for him and then the inning was over.
I thought that was kind of it for me, I didn’t realize I was going to hit in his spot. His spot comes around later on, it was the bottom of the ninth and they said, “You’re on deck.” I was like, ‘Uh-oh.’ It was so much adrenaline going that it was kind of chaotic. That was my first at-bat, and it actually took me quite a few to get that first hit, but once I got that first hit I was kind of able to relax and settle in a little bit.
MMO: A name that Met fans remember fondly is Bobby Valentine, who was your first major league manager. What were your overall impressions of Valentine?
Dean: Bobby is a very intelligent guy, he just knows the game and he was always teaching the game. He was always talking about the little things (which) a lot of coaches seem to overlook. He was young and I think he had just gotten that job a couple of years before I believe. So he was still a pretty young manager.
He was just a very smart baseball man and we had a great lineup. I think our arms were a little short, and that’s kind of what a lot of the Texas teams were my first few years in the league, always had great lineups. But you can’t out-slug everybody every night.
Dean: I remember Palmeiro just being a really good hitter with the Cubs and then he gets traded over with Jamie Moyer to us, and I think that was my first or second big league camp. And to me, he had one of the prettiest swings in baseball; he was always just a great hitter. The power numbers lacked early on and then all of a sudden he just exploded and started to learn how to hit the ball out of the ballpark.
To me, even at that early age, Pudge changed the game more than anyone that I’ve ever played with as far as shutting the running game down from behind the plate. People don’t realize that he was so good at throwing behind runners that when they would get their secondary lead and get off a little too far he’d throw behind them and get guys out.
He was so quick getting rid of it and had such a great arm that a guy on first isn’t going to go first to third on a routine hit where normally he would because he’s getting that good secondary lead. Defensively I’ve never seen a player change the game like him. Just a great guy, a phenomenal player, and one of my favorite teammates that I’ve ever played with.
My memories of Gonzalez were that he was always just a great hitter, even in the minor leagues. I remember him and (Mark) McGwire were back and forth one year in the home runs. Just watching him the whole year, not only hitting homers but driving in guys, just hitting the ball hard it seemed like every at-bat.
Once he settled in, I tell you what, he could probably carry a team. He was one of those guys that when he got hot he could flat out carry a team for long stretches. It was fun to watch him some of those years and I learned a lot from him.
Early on I was striking out a ton and really had a lot of talent but I hadn’t figured it out, in terms of how to be a good hitter. I would talk to him and he would kind of work with different approaches and would talk to him about his approach against certain pitchers. He really was a smart hitter.
MMO: Obviously the season you and the Rangers had in ’96 was fantastic: You went 90-72 and were in 1st place for almost the entire season making the postseason for the first time in team history. Along with that, you were 2nd on the team in HR (38), RBI (107), runs scored (98), and 3rd in OPS (.876). What about that season for you and the team made it so special?
Dean: It was one of those teams that had great chemistry. We were a good team, had a lot of talent, but our chemistry was so good. Everyone got along, everyone just loved being at that ballpark with each other and had fun. It was one of those years that when you’re down a run or two late in the ballgame in the seventh or eighth inning you had a feeling that someone was going to step up and do something big to put us ahead or win the game late, you had that feeling.
I played on plenty of bad teams where you’re up two or three runs late in the game and you had a feeling something bad was going to happen. With that team we always felt someone was going to step up and they usually did. So that was the big difference in those good teams you play on.
It’s that chemistry and obviously when you’re winning consistently you go to the ballpark and everyone’s happy and having a good time which is the opposite of when you’re losing. Chemistry is so big on those good teams, you see every year teams that win it, I guarantee you there’s not many winning teams out there that don’t have good chemistry.
MMO: That carryover effect on a game-to-game basis was huge for your squad in ’96 then, where you came to the ballpark with a good feeling about each game?
Dean: Absolutely. When you come to the ballpark when everything’s going good and you’re upbeat, that exudes confidence. Everyone is confident and someone might struggle for a little bit but other guys will pick him up and then those guys might struggle and you’re picking them up. You’re picking each other up and that’s just a really fun ride.
MMO: You were traded to the Royals by the deadline in ’97, and got to witness another young player with later Mets ties in ’98: Carlos Beltran. Can you talk a little about what you saw from Beltran early on?
Dean: Oh yeah, he was a September call-up that year and absolutely, you saw the talent. Just the all around talent in the outfield, defensively, running, he did everything really well. I just remember he was a very young kid back then, very quiet.
It’s fun to see a guy like that play so long and then he’s a leader. He’s a leader and I wouldn’t be surprised – I know he had his hat in the Yankee job – but I think he’ll probably be a good fit for somebody some day.
MMO: Your former manager with Detroit, Alan Trammell, was just elected to the Hall of Fame by the Modern Era Committee. What are your thoughts on your former manager’s induction?
Dean: I had the opportunity to play against him early in my career and I always admired how he played and how consistent he was. You have a lot of players, including myself, that were streaky and he just seemed like he was just consistent year in and year out. Put in good numbers and just played the game the right way and played to win.
He’s a great guy to be around, a great baseball man, and a guy that you could pick a lot of knowledge from. He was great, the time he was managing in Detroit we were a bad team. Just bad luck for him that is was his first job to get that team but he’s a great coach and baseball man.
MMO: I read that you had a degenerative neck injury that took its toll on you for your last three seasons in the majors. When did you first notice that it was an issue?
Dean: When I was in Triple-A in Oklahoma City I was having a phenomenal year. I would get up in the morning and there was a gym down the street. And I would get up in the morning and go lift and do my thing.
One day I got up and started doing some pull-ups and something popped in my neck. I couldn’t move, I barely could get to the ballpark; it was just such a bad spasm. Back then they didn’t have MRI’s and stuff so I think I sat out for seven-ten days, I was just really struggling. Then I actually got called up to the big leagues before I got back to play another Triple-A game, but it eventually ended up getting better.
Throughout the years I would just always have episodes here and there where my neck would act up again and spasm up. So ten-twelve years down the road it started giving me a lot of trouble, I got an MRI and I had two levels herniated in my neck. I ended up having those two levels fused and tried to come back but I had nerve damage and loss a lot of strength, especially in my right arm. I just wasn’t the same after that. It felt like I lost a lot of strength and lost a lot of range of motion.
MMO: Wow, so you dealt with the neck issues all the way back to your minor league days?
Dean: Yes I did. Looking back with technology, and this was in ’91 I think, and looking back if they had MRIs I’m sure I would’ve had an MRI and maybe it would’ve just been one level back then and could’ve had it fixed and moved on and never had any trouble again. I think throughout the years that one level probably ended up turning into two levels and got gradually worse. Who knows if I could’ve dealt with it early on maybe I could’ve played a couple of more years.
MMO: It’s pretty incredible that you were able to sustain the career that you had considering your neck problems started very early on in for you.
Dean: Absolutely, I do feel like I was very fortunate to be able to play with that. Like I said, at times it would really show up and bother me for weeks or a month or so. Then it would kind of go away and be okay and then it would come back again every so often. It was just an aggravating thing until it gradually got worse.
MMO: Has it gotten any better since you retired from baseball?
Dean: Well yeah, I get along. I actually ended up herniating the level below those two since then somewhere along the line, I’ll have to get cortisone/epidural shots every so often. I’m trying to hold off not having to get another surgery as long as I can. With that said, every day life I’m pretty good, can get up and do things, play golf and throw my kids BP. I can’t complain.
MMO: When you look back on your career, what are you most proud of?
Dean: Probably one of my best memories was playing behind Kenny Rogers in that perfect game against the Angels (July 28, 1994). That was just a cool moment and back then I think there had only been a dozen or so in history. I talked to Kenny about a year ago and we were talking about that game, and that was just a really cool thing to be a part of.
I look back on my career and I feel very fortunate that I was able to play for as long as I did. (I) never got a ring but went to the playoffs and being on the first Rangers’ team that went to the playoffs and got an opportunity to play in an All-Star Game.
It was a good ride; it was fun but I think every big leaguer will tell you it goes by fast. You can only do it so long, but I was proud to be a big leaguer; (to) put on that uniform and there’s only a limited amount of people that have that opportunity and it something you dream about as a kid. Just to fulfill your dream, something you’ve dreamed about your whole life and be able to actually do it is pretty cool.
MMO: Was there a pitcher who you felt most comfortable at the plate against? And, at the same time, a pitcher that had your number?
Dean: Oh yeah, there were plenty of guys that had my number. It’s kind of crazy but David Wells for probably the first half of my career it seemed like it didn’t matter what he threw I was going to hit it hard. I think it was about the time he was with the Yankees and later in his career it was the total opposite. He just learned how to pitch.
Back then early on he had good stuff, he would challenge guys but would just be hitting the middle of the plate a lot. Once he learned how to pitch it was complete 180, he just owned me after that. He was one of those guys that I felt pretty good and confident with for the first half of the career.
I always tell people probably the toughest pitcher I ever faced was Pedro Martinez. When he was in his prime he was as tough as you can get. He was running that 98 (mph fastball) in on your hands and then he had that great curveball and a great changeup.
He probably had three of the best pitches in the game at the time, and he wasn’t afraid to buzz you. He wasn’t afraid to move your feet, so he was tough. To me, during that period he was the toughest guy (to face). I might’ve gotten a hit or two off of him, but they weren’t pretty. He was one of those guys that I felt like you really didn’t have much of a chance up there when he was on.
MMO: I read that you coached high school baseball after you retired from the game, is that right?
Dean: Yeah, I coached a few years with TCC junior college in town. And then high school, a buddy of mine coaches the high school team so I helped him out for a few years. (It) was a great time and I enjoyed it a lot but I have kids of my own and it’s a pretty good commitment doing that. I wanted to be around watching their games but I’ve always thought about getting back in the game at some point.
MMO: Do you stay involved with the game?
Dean: I do. Randy Smith, who was the GM with Detroit when I was there and has been working with the Padres for a few years, I’ve gone out to spring training with them and have gotten my feet wet just to see if that’s something I’d like to do.
When my kids get out of school – they’re juniors in high school right now – I’ve kind of gone back and forth and might try to get back in the game, we’ll see though. I enjoy the game and love working with hitters and trying to teach them what not to that I did early in my career that I would’ve changed to be a better hitter.
MMO: Appreciate your time today, Dean. Thanks so much for speaking with me.
Dean: I appreciate that, thanks very much.
Follow Dean Palmer on Twitter, @Ddp1607