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Finder on the Web: Viagra no laughing matter for Palmeiro, despite Pirates' pained attempts

Tuesday, June 25, 2002

So Rafael Palmeiro, Texas Rangers batting star and -- ahem -- baseball's Viagra pitch man, do you catch much grief from fans on the road?

"Very little."

What's the funniest line anybody tossed your way?

"I don't really pay much attention to that."

How have teammates and other players around baseball reacted?

"They ask me if I can get them some. It's not like Advil. It's a prescription drug."

You mean to tell me, you just spent three days in Pittsburgh, home to the second-oldest populace in America, and no older woman has tried to pick up a 37-year-old millionaire, professional athlete on the little blue pill?

Steely stare. Shake of the head.

No, Rafael Palmeiro wasn't in a farcical mood this past weekend. He wasn't ready to kid about his condition the way blonds or Jews traffic in seemingly harmless humor about their own kinds. Neither the subject nor the Pirates' PNC Park unwelcoming committee lent themselves to Palmeiro's stoic, resolute nature.

First, the subject:

"It's really not a joking matter. Whether it's hemorrhoids or hair loss or ... , none of us is perfect. Some of us have diseases or defects or flaws. If you could know, would you do something? I deal with the truth that way and decided [to become Major League Baseball's spokesman]. So it doesn't do any good to make fun of a problem. When it comes to our society, we're a little messed up in that regard.

"Everybody needs to be serious about it and understand facts. I think what people don't realize is that somebody had to come forward and take the teasing. It's nothing to be ashamed of. It's all about helping out people to face the problem they're having."

Erectile dysfunction was a serious enough condition that MLB became a proud sponsor, as the Palmeiro advertisements tout on TV and in magazines, such as Monday's edition of Newsweek (page 77). For four months, officials from Pfizer and our national pastime worked toward selecting an endorser, apparently considering Barry Bonds -- before scratching him off as a risk -- and Matt Williams and Tom Glavine. If only MLB would attack performance-enhancing drugs with the same vigor and vitality. Then again, there's no eight-figure sponsorship deal with urinalysis and blood-testing companies in the offing. . . .

Palmeiro, a 15-year veteran nearing the Hall of Fame-worthy plateau of 500 home runs, stepped up to the plate for Viagra. He accepted the $500,000 endorsement fee, the pills and the potential stigma of becoming the first player to admit that "his bat was corked."

Hey, that was the Sports Business Journal's line, not mine.

Indeed, erectile dysfunction is a medical condition that afflicts more than 25 million American men. Palmeiro talked about hair loss and hemorrhoids, and that Don Zimmer TV spot makes me squirm in my seat, but those don't seem to qualify as similarly momentous conditions. Same with taking drugs for better toenails or younger skin. We're talking a doctor-diagnosed, prescription-required, family-affecting problem here.

The Pirates helped none by belittling the subject Palmeiro chooses to address nationally with conviction.

Whenever he came to bat at PNC Park this past weekend, he was accompanied over the public-address system by canned sound: Boooooiiiiiiinng. An unwitting Vince Lascheid was asked to play on the organ "Pop Goes the Weasel" and the theme from the Woody Woodpecker cartoon. The scoreboard showed a photo of the Point's streaming fountain.

After listening to Palmeiro preach in the clubhouse, then hearing such musical humor attempted in front of tens of thousands, it smacked of a tasteless act to me. The Pirates owe him an apology. Would they have serenaded a diabetic with "Candy Man?"

If anything, they should have invited him into some subtle scoreboard fun, then given him a forum to address the issue.

It's well and good to poke fun at our own foibles. It's comforting on many levels to find mirth in unsettling places. In this case, I approached Palmeiro much in the same vein as an interview about Zimmer's hemorrhoid endorsement or, if I really strayed fowl, about Bonds' chicken commercials.

"I know for sure a lot of people [in baseball] are taking it," Palmeiro said. "A lot of people."

Whoa, wait a second. Could Rafael Palmeiro become the next Jose Canseco and out baseball? So are 85 percent of all players on the stuff, or what?

"No, no, I'm not getting into that," Palmeiro said, cracking his first smile of the conversation, catching the levity at long last. "I don't know who takes it. But I know it's a lot."

And one last thing: He says the little blue pill doesn't affect his play on the field. Or in his hitting.

In addition to The Big Picture, Chuck Finder writes a general-sports column exclusive to the http://www.post-gazette.com/ every Tuesday. He can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com

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