BRADENTON, Fla. -- Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer was hit hard yesterday in his first exhibition game since 1984, leaving room to wonder just how much longer his improbable comeback attempt will last.
Even Palmer wondered aloud after the Boston Red Sox had him up to his ears in line drives for two innings in the early stages of the Baltimore Orioles' 3-2 Grapefruit League victory at McKechnie Field. He gave up two runs, five hits and a number of hard outs, but he vowed to keep going despite growing evidence that his legs are not up to the challenge.
"I don't like to quit," said Palmer, who was pitching on a strained right hamstring and a sore right Achilles' tendon, "but I'd like to think I'm a realist. So I'll do some thinking."
Palmer is ready to concede that he has no chance to make the Orioles pitching staff. He is even willing to admit that the comeback attempt might be over already if he were doing it only for himself. But the comeback apparently has become a crusade.
"Personally, it's not that meaningful," he said, "but to a lot of people, it is. There are a lot of people who are living it right along with me. I haven't gotten one piece of negative fan mail. I feel I'm doing it for them. I feel I've got to make the effort."
If there was anyone in an Orioles uniform who didn't think much of his effort yesterday, no one was willing to say it. It was, after all, only his first time out, and there are pitchers a lot younger than Palmer who have been knocked around the past few days.
"We told you from the beginning that Jim Palmer would go out there like everybody else," manager Frank Robinson said. "It's not a one-start fiasco. I think he threw decently for the first time out."
But Palmer struggled with his control and was behind on the count to nine of the 12 batters he faced. He threw 38 pitches and left the game after two innings, although he originally was scheduled to pitch three.
The first batter Palmer faced was Red Sox third baseman Wade Boggs, who figures to join him in the Hall of Fame some day. Boggs singled toopen the game and scored the first run. He also singled in the second inning and drove home a run. In between, Palmer gave up base hits to Mike Greenwell, Carlos Quintana and Phil Plantier. It could have been worse, but Greenwell popped up with the bases loaded to end the second inning.
"I'm not so worried about performance as I am about being able to perform," Palmer said. "This is a good-hitting ballclub, but I know I have to pitch better than I did today."
He apparently aggravated the hamstring pull while warming up in the bullpen before the game. Though he did not specifically blame the injury for his ineffectiveness, it was obvious that his command had deteriorated since he pitched two innings in an intrasquad game Wednesday. The sore Achilles' tendon kept him off the weekend road trip to Fort Lauderdale, but he said it was not a serious factor.
"I had a talk with [Orioles pitching instructor] Dick Bosman and he told me, 'If your body is telling you that you can't do it anymore, then stop,' " Palmer said. "It hasn't told me that yet. It's sent a few messages, but it hasn't told me that quite yet."
Palmer left open the possibility, however, that he would give up his comeback attempt as early as today if his twice-injured right leg does not bounce back.
"I'd like to think my leg will be fine tomorrow," he said. "If so, I'll get back out there and throw. Now, if I can't walk tomorrow, I've got to call it quits."
Robinson has left it entirely up to Palmer to decide if he wants to carry his comeback attempt to the end of spring training. Palmer tTC said repeatedly yesterday that he will continue until his body -- or the Orioles -- tells him to stop.
"You have to continue to find out what you have, unless you become a pain in the butt," he said. "I don't want to be a distraction and I don't want to be a roadblock for the young pitching here. If I hear that, that's it."