Palmer deserves chance to flop once and for all

JOHN EISENBERG

February 14, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

I have always maintained what I thought was a sensible approach to these semi-regular bulletins announcing Jim Palmer's comebacks.

I have ignored them.

Surely, I thought, everyone saw it the way I did: That it was more likely that the Beatles reunite, that it was just the wandering of Palmer's original mind (with a touch of identity crisis thrown in), that it was a winning fantasy, but only that -- a fantasy.

I saw no need to discount the news in print. Since everyone saw it as I did, a dissenting voice was not required.

If I ignore this, I told myself, it will go away. That, of course, is what people in radio said about television 40 years ago.

I am a beaten man today. I have learned a lesson. Palmer's comebacks are strong. Stronger than I am. You can ignore them and ignore them and ignore them, but they do not go away.

Never, in fact, has the news been more persistent than now. You know the story. Everyone does. (See what I mean?) Palmer is working out down in Florida. Some kid coach has retooled his mechanics. Witnesses have called it a miracle. Some scouts showed up to watch yesterday.

Baltimore is talking about it. I hear it in the street. On the radio. In the office. When the talk turns to baseball, it turns to Palmer. A 45-year-old who hasn't pitched in seven years.

I see now that I have been wrong, that everyone does not see it as I do, that this is a sentimental fantasy in which, damn the circumstances, many people want to invest. I see now that Palmer's comebacks are, well, the same as fixing up an old house. Let me explain.

I have a neighbor who says that fixing up an old house is not unlike painting the Brooklyn Bridge. Once you get to the end, it has been so long since you started that it is time to go back and start all over again. The point, of course, is that you never stop fixing.

By the same token, I now see, Palmer's comebacks will not stop. They are cyclical, not linear. When talk of one subsides, another springs up. Already, in the midst of this one, the groundwork for another is being laid. He has a blister on his hand. Maybe next year he will throw better.

Enough, I say.

This could go on on until Palmer is 65 and using Satchel Paige as inspiration. He is stuck on this whim, and a fair number of people are stuck with him.

I understand now that I have to change my approach, that I can't ignore this anymore, that I have to address it. I guess you could say I am coming out of retirement on the issue of Palmer's retirement.

I don't want to do this. I admire Palmer. I don't want to play the cynic, the wiseacre, but scouts are showing up now and it is time to stop treating the matter with such delicacy, time to get a yes-no answer. There is only one course to pursue. It is time to get Palmer on a major-league mound.

The only way he is ever going to drop the idea of coming back is if he recognizes that it can't be done, and the only way that is going to happen is if he gets hit. And I don't mean in the head.

A thousand cynics won't mean a thing to him. Athletes live in a physical world. Lessons come on playing fields, not in newspapers or in the opinions of scouts.

Friends and observers told Sugar Ray Leonard he was too old, that it was time to quit. He didn't listen. Only after Terry Norris bloodied him did he realize those friends and observers were right.

I don't mean to disparage, but it is not unlike dealing with 2-year-olds. You can tell them a hundred times that the stove is hot, but they won't believe you until they put their hand on it and, to their dismay, find out that the stove is indeed hot.

Palmer needs to put his hand on the stove. That is the only way this business is ever going to be resolved.

He is a smart man, but he is hooked. He knows deep down that this is basically a foolishness, but he is a little bored and the television thing isn't going as well right now,and he has this obsession about the end of his career coming too soon. He can't be told no. He has to see for himself.

This, of course, is what he would want. A chance. A chance that in itself would represent a comeback fulfilled. Maybe it wouldn't be so dignified, but it will have to come to that or we could be going round andround on this thing for years.

Maybe the stove wouldn't be hot. Palmer does have Hall of Fame resolve, and baseball players can reconcile anything. But let's face it: As terrific as he was all those years, he didn't have much left when the Orioles released him. To expect more seven years later is to win the lottery.

I just hope a team is willing to find out. It is a long shot, real long, but I hope that somehow, some way, he gets in there against the top of an order, and in June, not March: the real thing, hey, batta, batta. Let's see if he can fool them with his slider, if his fastball is still fast enough, if he has the right stuff.

If he does, fine, Lourdes has come to Baltimore and I will gasp and applaud along with everyone else. If he doesn't, well, we will finally have some evidence and the issue will take leave. Until, of course, the next comeback.

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