Reality knocked Palmer's fantasy out of the box

JOHN EISENBERG

March 13, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

The ending was obvious from the moment the Boston Red Sox began knocking his pitches around in the Florida sunshine Monday afternoon. Jim Palmer wasn't fooling anyone. His fastball wasn't fast. His control wasn't under control. There just wasn't much there there.

Actually, the ending was obvious long before that. At no point in this comeback did anyone ever say Palmer was throwing magnificently, outrageously well, which was the minimum requirement if this dream were to come true. No, everyone always nodded and said, yeah, he's throwing pretty well, you know, he looks good for 45.

You aren't about to pull off a comeback from seven years in the broadcast booth if people are saying, yeah, he's throwing pretty well for 45. You might stand a chance if people are saying, wow, this is a miracle, he has sensational stuff. But we never heard that. We just heard the niceties, which were always the least anyone was going to offer. It was the tip-off.

This was always better as a story than a reality, though. It was a fantasy. Palmer took everyone along on a fantasy. The cold facts -- his age, his usefulness in long relief -- didn't matter. The impossible odds didn't matter. The lukewarm reviews didn't matter. It was a fantasy. That sliver of possibility still hung in the air when Palmer took the mound Monday.

See, you hang around gyms and ballparks long enough and you learn never to say that something is 100 percent, absolutely, positively impossible. It is always wise to leave a decimal point sitting out there. Villanova did beat Georgetown. Buster Douglas did knock out Mike Tyson. The half-as-good Jets did beat the Colts in the Super Bowl.

But those fantasy-come-trues shared one basic element: It took two to make it happen. Tyson had to be fat and bored for Douglas to beat him. The Colts had to be overconfident for the Jets to have a chance. Georgetown had to be just a little slack that night. You can make a fool out of any legion of disbelievers, but you usually need help.

That was always the problem with this most serious of Palmer's comebacks. There was no one else. No one fat or bored or overconfident to swing and miss. No one to lie down, go slack, make it easier. No, there was just Palmer and the limits of his body. A 45-year-old trying to defy nature, which does not get fat or bored or overconfident.

The plain truth, the fantasy-killer, is that a 45-year-old can't summon the arm strength to fool major-leaguers in their prime. You can look it up . . . in a biology textbook. It is harder at 45 than 25 to run as fast, lift as much, throw as hard. A strong will helps, but, in the end, that is worth only so much against such an inflexible opponent. (Don't pay attention to Nolan Ryan. He is a freak, a hurricane in the desert, strictly a one-timer.)

A 45-year-old Hall of Famer in tremendous shape can, yeah, throw pretty well, you know, look good for 45. He might even fool some batters in an intrasquad game, as Palmer did last week. But he isn't going to fool Wade Boggs or Mike Greenwell. It just isn't going to happen. That reality collided with the fantasy Monday.

One day later, when Palmer announced yesterday that he was ending his comeback, he said he had seen what he needed to see, which, as Yogi Berra might say, means he had seen enough of not enough. His hamstring hurt, but he also had recognized his limits. At least his eyesight isn't failing. His limits were hard to miss. The Red Sox hung them up on the scoreboard.

What now? Hopefully, Palmer will remember the day's hard lesson and stop trying to fight nature. Early returns are good. He said yesterday that he wants to come back to Florida next year, but only to throw batting practice, have a few laughs. Let's hope that's all he wants.

He got out with his dignity this time. No one was hurt by this. Palmer showed he could get into great shape and pitch better than most 45-year-olds. The Orioles welcomed him and didn't offer a discouraging word, allowing him to do his discovering all by himself. A lot of fans got to buy into a winning fantasy for a few weeks. There wasn't a loser in the bunch.

If Palmer changes his mind, though -- and you can be sure that hamstring will be in there arguing -- there would, indeed, be a loser the next time. People bought into this fantasy because Palmer had put in more work than before. It clearly wasn't just an idle notion. But people start telling jokes, or turning their heads in shame, when athletes keep coming back beyond their time.

Nature's same, inflexible rules will always be in place, and Palmer will always be older than he was last year. Here's hoping he knows when to say when. This was fun, Jim. Well-done. But enough.

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