SARASOTA, Fla. -- When the Orioles officially opened training camp this morning, Jim Palmer was not in uniform. To a lot of people that wasn't a surprise, because they didn't expect him in the first place.
However, the Hall of Fame righthander will be here tomorrow, committed to a full spring training trial that manager Frank Robinson has promised.
It was only after an agonizing 48 hours of self-evaluation that Palmer, 45, decided to accept the Orioles' invitation. And he did so only after hearing that Robinson felt he would be a positive influence on the youthful pitching staff.
"It wasn't that I was afraid of failing," said Palmer, "because I've certainly done that enough in my life. But I don't want to embarrass myself, or the club, and I don't want to do anything that would be a burden, or a distraction."
It was only after hearing about Robinson's reaction in an Evening Sun story that Palmer became convinced that he should continue a comeback effort that began two months ago. "I read the first half of Frank's book on the flight back to Baltimore [last night from Atlanta, where he had a scheduled appearance], and I'm going to read the rest of it on the way back to Florida," said Palmer.
Although the two Hall of Famers were teammates for six years, Palmer still hasn't talked to Robinson about his comeback. He didn't do it previously because it isn't in his nature to ask a favor.
Tomorrow they will talk for the first time. But Robinson's reaction to Palmer's presence in camp is the only reason they will meet face-to-face.
As late as Wednesday night, Palmer was ready to officially call it a career. Not because he was convinced it was folly to attempt a comeback, but because it would be perceived in a negative fashion.
"I'm not sure it's worth all the abuse -- all the character assassination," he said. But, after all the negotiations (he basically has an agreement with the Orioles that includes various incentives if he makes the club), after all the workouts and all the uncertainty, it came down to one basic fact.
"It's not a do-or-die situation," he said, "but it's something I want to do. I talked to Flanny [Mike Flanagan, who is also an invitee to the Orioles' camp], and he told me it took him a couple of days to make a decision. You worry about not having enough work because of all their pitchers."
But it was Robinson's positive reaction, even though it wasn't person-to-person, that convinced Palmer he had come too far to turn back now. He decided against picking up the phone to get some assurance, because he didn't want to be just another pitcher with his hat in his hand looking for a job. The bottom line, when it was all said and done, was that this was something he wanted to do.
"They were fair with the contract, and it's nice to know they want me to come," said Palmer.
General manager Roland Hemond likened the arrival of Palmer to other established greats of his era, and said the Orioles should benefit, not be hurt, by his presence. "I know Jim was worried about being a distraction," said Hemond. "But Ted Williams was a great hitter and when he walked into a batting cage in spring training, everything stopped. Everybody watched him hit. When he was finished, the action started again, and everybody went back to work."
He also discounted the theory that players couldn't be productive in their later years.
"I remember trading Tommy John [from the White Sox to the Dodgers] in 1971," Hemond said. "Tommy threw a lot of ground balls and we didn't have the kind of team that would catch them. People forget that we got a great player in return, Dick Allen, but 16 years later Tommy John was still pitching in the big leagues.
"I got Jim Kaat [for the White Sox] in 1973 from Minnesota for $20,000 and he went 4-1, then won 20 and 21 games the next two years. I figured it was time to trade him, and nine years later he was still pitching.
"When we signed Carlton Fisk in 1981 I told the owners it would take a five-year contract to get him out of Boston, but I could only guarantee them that he'd have three productive years," said Hemond. "I was back there for a banquet a year ago, right after Carlton signed a two-year contract, with an option for one year and I said the same thing: "I can only guarantee you three more productive years." Here it is a decade later, after the White Sox signed him, and Fisk is still producing."
Hemond makes no predictions, and neither does Palmer. The timing may or may not be perfect, but it's something that almost seemed destined to happen.
A year ago Palmer expressed interest in pitching an exhibition game after his induction into the Hall of Fame. The game was rained out -- but long after Palmer decided it might not be a good idea.
"I couldn't have done that then," he said last night. "I could do it now."
He knows that scouts watching him have reported back that he is throwing at average, or slightly below average, major-league velocity. He knows that baseball is in tune with the radar gun.
He also knows he's heard that before. "That [84-85 mph] is what I was throwing in 1982," Palmer said of a season in which he was 15-15.
Is he ready to take up Robinson's challenge for a full spring training tryout? "Yes," said Palmer. "I'm not going to worry about how I'm throwing."