Farewell (Again), Jim Palmer

March 13, 1991

Nostalgia is a big part of baseball. The two newest stadiums, the one opening in Chicago this year and the one being built in Baltimore, mimic old ball parks. The Orioles wear new hats and uniforms which resemble their old (mid-1950s) caps and uniforms -- belts and shirt buttons are back. Memorabilia (old baseball cards, bats and so on) command prices so high it would seem only a $700,000-a-year utility infielder could afford them.

All too briefly, Jim Palmer gave us living nostalgia. Attempting a comeback seven years after his retirement, he pitched two innings in a spring training exhibition game, got hit hard and said his sore hamstrings would not allow him to continue.

There are those who will say that it was a bad idea to try to extend a career which already included 268 wins over 19 seasons, eight 20-win seasons, three Cy Young Awards as the best pitcher in the league, and election to the Hall of Fame. They will say that it should have been obvious that a 45-year-old cannot throw a baseball past major league hitters after a seven-year layoff. They will insist their point is proven by the ease with which Red Sox batters turned his slow fastballs into line drives. They will question his motivation: Was he in it to earn the obscene salary baseball players now command? To improve his bargaining position as he negotiated a new contract as a television broadcaster?

The critics are wrong. The comeback was a good idea. Baseball is entertainment, and the comeback gave us entertainment. Baseball is the stuff of myth. In this case, it was not just the baseball kind of myth -- Babe Ruth's "called shot," Joe DiMaggio's streak, "The Natural," "Field of Dreams" -- although it was that, too. It was the myth of someone trying to accomplish something that everyone said couldn't be done. It was the myth of trying to recapture lost youth, a gripping drama for those on the leading edge of the baby boom.

Well. Let's not read too much into this. Bart Giamatti and George Will have intellectualized baseball enough; it remains for us to watch and enjoy. But let's not begrudge Jim Palmer his shot.

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