Aching Palmer finds Father Time is a pretty tough hitter to try to fool

Ken Rosenthal

March 12, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Jim Palmer proved his point. So di Father Time.

The best thing now would be if Palmer's aching right hamstring tells him, "No more." Palmer, reluctant to appear a quitter, won't say those words himself. Neither will Orioles manager Frank Robinson, who promised him a fair shot.

No one judges a 25-year-old pitcher on one spring outing, but Palmer is a 45-year-old pitcher, and a Hall of Famer at that. His dismal two-inning performance against Boston yesterday ended the mystery. The Comeback can not possibly succeed.

The only remaining question is when this saga will end, and the hamstring problem, if serious, offers an easy out. Palmer now admits his goal was not to make the club, merely to try. His curiosity satisfied, he can resume broadcasting without regret.

Only Palmer doesn't see it that way, at least not in such simple terms. He feels obligated to continue, not just for himself, but for his fans -- 4,955 of whom packed rickety McKechnie Field yesterday, some leaning behind a rope down the leftfield line, others standing on benches.

Behind home plate, one woman clutched a Wheaties box with Palmer's likeness. Approximately 60 reporters charted his every fastball and curve. Nearly 20 photographers recaptured his trademark delivery. It was a moment like none before. Time-lapse photography, in real life.

"Personally, it's not that meaningful, but to a lot of people it is," Palmer said. "They're living their dreams through me. I haven't gotten one negative piece of mail. They feel I'm doing this for them. I feel the least I can do is make the effort."

His argument is not without logic; Palmer would be accused of simply feeding his own ego if he stopped without reason. Yesterday's Boston Tee-Off Party might seem reason enough, but after a seven-year layoff Palmer said, "If you quit, you don't know. You have to give yourself enough time."

The problem is that Palmer is risking embarrassment. He threw 38 pitches in two innings, few of them impressive. His fastball looked slow enough to be his changeup, and he couldn't control his curve. The Red Sox's Tony Pena said he threw 83-84 mph. Radar O'Reilly, Pena's not.

Robinson said Palmer looked "decent" for his first time out, and it's worth noting that Boston was the best hitting club in the majors last season. Still, Palmer was fortunate to allow only two runs. Six of his 12 hitters reached base. Nobody was baffled: Only rookie Phil Plantier swung through a strike.

Palmer clearly wasn't pleased, but such is his aura, no one on either side offered an honest critique. Perhaps the most telling comment came from Boston second baseman Jody Reed. "When you hear 'Jim Palmer' you think of the best," he said. "If I were in that situation, I'd want people to remember me like that."

So, is this entire episode a foolish dream, a selfish pursuit, a waste? At first glance, maybe; from a distance, absolutely not. Palmer obviously is enjoying himself. He loves signing autographs. He loves bantering with Orioles trainers. He even loves talking to reporters for as long as they'd like.

But it turns out this bizarre chapter in club history is not merely being played out for Palmer's benefit; the Orioles are profiting too, and not just in a public relations sense. If nothing else, Palmer said he wanted to help educate the club's young pitchers. Mission accomplished.

"He's been a tremendous help to me," said pitching coach Al Jackson, who might easily have accused Palmer of undermining his authority. "He's taken all the pressure off these young kids. From day one, he's been nothing but a help to the organization."

"Just to talk to him any length of time means a lot," said Ben McDonald, who followed Palmer with four scoreless innings in PTC yesterday's 3-2 victory. "It's great having him around. It would be great having him around all the time."

That isn't going to happen, but as The Comeback draws its final breath, it's worth savoring for its simple pleasures -- for the historic return of a Hall of Famer, the buzz it sends through the stands, the sheer vision of No. 22 back on the mound.

Wade Boggs was asked if he'd ever try such a thing, and he said, "My wife wouldn't let me." Kidding aside, most players view Palmer with a certain awe. "More power to him," said Matt Young, the Boston starter yesterday. "I'd love to be able to do something like that at his age."

The players tip their hats to Palmer.

Now he should tip his to Father Time.

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