SARASOTA, Fla. -- Jim Palmer pulled his car right up to the clubhouse door at Twin Lakes Park yesterday, which was the first indication that he wasn't planning to be around very long. Then he limped to his locker and removed all doubt.
His improbable comeback attempt is over. The official explanation was that he tore a hamstring warming up for Monday's exhibition appearance against the Boston Red Sox, but the writing had been on the dugout wall for several days.
Mr. Palmer pitched well for a 45-year-old who hadn't thrown a baseball in anger for seven years, but he was not going to be pitching for the Baltimore Orioles or any other major league team come Opening Day.
"I'm not saying I wouldn't like to continue, but I can't," he said. "I heard something pop in my leg yesterday. It wasn't a nice sound. I don't know what that means, but I think it's going to play havoc with my tennis game."
Mr. Palmer has complained of various leg ailments since he began throwing at the University of Miami in December. He missed last weekend's road trip to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., because of hamstring soreness and a strained right Achilles' tendon, but he had not missed a scheduled pitching workout since he arrived in camp as a non-roster invitee Feb. 23.
His 1991 exhibition debut against the Red Sox did not go well. He gave up five hits in his two innings and indicated afterward that he would quit if the hamstring inflammation did not subside quickly.
"I talked to [Orioles manager] Frank [Robinson] at breakfast today," Mr. Palmer said. "He said, 'Are you sure?' I said, 'No, but my leg is.' "
Mr. Palmer never officially retired after the Orioles released him in 1984. He maintained that baseball had given up on him too early and talked on several occasions about making a comeback attempt. But he waited until after his induction into the Hall of Fame to attempt what would have been a baseball first.
No Hall of Fame player from any major sport except hockey has made a successful comeback.
"What you get in touch with is that you have to be 100 percent in every way," Mr. Palmer said. "It's like a 12-cylinder Jaguar. You have to be running on all 12 cylinders to perform at this level when you're 45, or when you're 37 for that matter."
Though there had been speculation that the Orioles invited Mr. Palmer to camp out of a sense of obligation, General Manager Roland Hemond seemed genuinely disappointed that the comeback attempt had come to an end.
"I am disappointed, because you're pulling for something like this to materialize in a positive fashion," he said. "It's still a positive thing, just having him around here. It shows the young players just how much a great, Hall of Fame player values his career."
Mr. Palmer would have put the club in a difficult situation if he had remained healthy and pitched adequately throughout the spring. The Orioles already had many more viable candidates for the pitching staff than places to put them.
"I respect his decision," Mr. Robinson said. "He knows better than anyone what he is capable of doing or not. I really, truly would have liked to see him succeed. I know he was fighting some big odds. I admire him. He didn't drag the decision out."
He didn't get the chance. Mr. Palmer was limping when he arrived at the Orioles' spring training facility yesterday. He stayed only long enough to meet with reporters and get some treatment from the training staff before driving to his apartment in Key Biscayne, Fla.
"I'm going back to Miami for a couple of days," he said. "I would stay over here, but I think I've paid my dues at the Holiday Inn."
Why did he come in the first place? Because he didn't like the way his career ended the first time? Because his recent disassociation with the ESPN television network left him with some time on his hands? Because he coveted the mega-money that goes to even the mediocre major leaguers of today? Mr. Palmer will admit to all of the above.
What did he prove? That he is in outstanding shape for a 45-year-old man, but everyone who ever saw him in a pair of Jockey briefs probably knew that already.
Is this the last anyone is going to hear about a Jim Palmer comeback?
"I think so," he said. "Let's hope so, for everybody's sake."
The Orioles, to a man, applauded his effort and dismissed the notion that his presence in any way detracted from their preparation for the 1991 season.
"I think his presence in camp was a very positive thing," assistant general manager Doug Melvin said. "When you think of the Orioles, you think of Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer and Earl Weaver. . . . I've heard from a lot of young players who just enjoyed the opportunity to sit down with him and talk about pitching."
Mr. Palmer seemed to enjoy being one of the guys again, even if most of the Orioles pitchers are young enough to be his sons. "The players have been terrific," he said. "It's nice, as a guy who played his whole career here, to see the attitude and talent in this camp. If they stay healthy, this club is going to be a contender in the American League East."
The Orioles followed up his announcement with one of their own. They will give an annual award in Mr. Palmer's honor -- the Palmer Prize -- to the top minor league pitcher in the organization.