Palmer accepts invitation to spring dance

February 22, 1991|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Sun Staff Correspondent

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer admitted that he almost balked at the spring training invitation from the Baltimore Orioles, but he informed the club late last night that he will report to Twin Lakes Park for an extended tryout.

He is expected to arrive in Sarasota, Fla., tonight and will be in uniform tomorrow for his first organized workout since the Orioles released him May 23, 1984. But he needed some persuading from a couple of close friends to take his unlikely comeback attempt back to the major-league level.

"I had written a statement that I was going to give it up," Palmer said, "but I talked it over with Mike Flanagan and Al Michaels last night, and everybody basically said I had come this far and I should keep going."

The final encouragement might have come indirectly from manager Frank Robinson, who said yesterday that Palmer's presence in camp could be a positive thing for the club's youthful pitching staff.

"That's what I understand and that had a lot to do with it," Palmer said. "Some writers have intimated that I have been a cancer around this ballclub the past six years, but I don't want to do anything to diminish the Orioles' chances of winning or distract them. It's not going to be a media circus. I won't let that happen."

Nevertheless, as he prepared to head for Sarasota, reporters and television crews from all over Florida prepared to descend on Twin Lakes Park for his first workout.

The Orioles knew that would happen, but general manager Roland Hemond repeatedly assured Palmer that the club was not concerned about his becoming a distraction.

"If he was thinking of not coming, I'm real pleased he changed his mind," Hemond said. "We're looking forward to him coming in. It will be a great thing if he makes the club. If he had decided not to come, it would have been a disappointment."

Palmer agreed to the terms of a conditional contract that goes into effect only if he makes the club. It calls for an increasing salary as hereaches certain performance plateaus, but he would not get into specifics.

"It's a performance contract that is fair," he said. "I don't want to be paid for anything I don't do. I've never operated like that. It's a fair contract."

Palmer will be the oldest player in any major-league camp, but not by much. At 45, he is 15 months older than Texas Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan, who is still one of the most effective pitchers in baseball. Though Palmer has long insisted he still can pitch, he said that he had almost given in to doubt Wednesday night.

"I'm still somewhat apprehensive," he said. "That's normal. It's been almost seven years since I last pitched."

The Orioles might share that sense of apprehension, but failing to invite Palmer for a tryout would have been a public-relations disaster. He is one of the most successful and popular players in club history, and has remained very visible as a member of the WMAR-TV Orioles broadcast team.

Robinson told reporters yesterday that he agreed with the team's decision to invite Palmer, even though the Orioles have plenty of candidates for the 1991 pitching staff.

"The only course that could be taken was the course we took," hesaid. "Jim Palmer spent his entire career with this organization. He is the winningest pitcher in the history of this organization. He is a very visible person in the community. If he says 'I'd like to make a comeback,' it's only natural that it would be with the Orioles. I wouldn't want to see Jim Palmer in any other uniform."

Though Robinson was in for a busy training camp to begin with, he denied that having Palmer in uniform would make his job harder.

"I think it will be a positive thing," he said. "He'll divert some attention away from the youngsters and it'll be positive having him around them so they can pick his brain. I'm not looking at it as being a negative thing at all."

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