It took him 7 years, but Palmer finally went out the way he wanted

ON OWN TERMS:

March 13, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Mike Flanagan stuck his head in the trainer's room and asked, "What's going on with 'Cakes?" It was 4:15 p.m., and Jim Palmer already was gone, gone home to Key Biscayne.

Still, Flanagan had come to the right place. Posted on the door was the famous Jockey ad featuring you-know-who. An unidentified player added the caption, "Richie, can I see you for a minute?"

Richie is Richie Bancells, the Orioles' head trainer. True, Palmer's historic comeback attempt was always good for a laugh. But it evolved into something much more.

"It brought back memories," Bancells said. "When I was an assistant starting out [in 1984], he was one of the people who made me feel at home. He helped me with my career. It was fun rehashing old times."

Moments before, the 45-year-old Palmer delivered one last punchline at Bancells' expense.

"We just lessened his workload by 50 percent," he joked. "I'm out of here."

This was the ending he always wanted, the ending he always deserved. Only Palmer could rewrite the final chapter of his career. It took him seven years, but he finally retired on his own terms.

He cried after being released in 1984. He smiled after struggling for two innings Monday, smiled and waved as he walked off the field with his wife Joni.

He sensed it was over then, sensed his right hamstring was torn. He shed no tears yesterday after informing manager Frank Robinson of his decision. He was still in the Hall of Fame.

"It's been a tremendous run," Palmer said. "I would like to have gone longer. It's like the perfect world -- except when you have to perform."

Brady Anderson had dressed to his right, Leo Gomez to his left.

By 3:00 his locker was empty, his nameplate removed.

The only thing inside was his stool.

"It took a lot of guts to come back," said Palmer's old teammate Flanagan, who's trying to return at the age of 39. "He took some ridicule in the press. People were kind of snickering behind his back."

"It answered some questions in his mind," Robinson said. "I don't think they were the questions of '84. But I'm sure he thinks he gave it a good shot. His mind was willing, but physically he couldn't do it."

Palmer didn't embarrass himself against Boston on Monday, but he didn't impress anyone with his results: Five hits and one walk in two innings, hard line drives and long foul balls.

That night, he received a call from fellow broadcaster Al Michaels.

"They didn't hit the ball that hard," Michaels said.

"They could have," Palmer replied.

Flanagan was amazed he allowed only two runs.

"He stayed out of the big inning again, didn't he?"

Palmer said he won't be another Sugar Ray Leonard.

He plans to stay retired.

"Let's hope so," he joked, "for the good of everyone."

Keeping busy will be no problem. He recently signed a three-year contract with Jockey, and he'll return to Channel 2 as an Orioles' broadcaster. He believes his 17 days in camp added to his knowledge of the team.

As for other work, Palmer said, "I'll just ask Brooks [Robinson] to give me a call. He did most of my [promotional] things in March. He became a wealthy man because of this. I'll just tell him to send me the overflow."

In Beverly, Mass., Palmer's good friend and former teammate Dave Leonhard expressed his regrets. "I guess if he can't do it," Leonhard said, "nobody can."

Palmer kept threatening a comeback, but Leonhard said, "I never took him seriously until this year. I just thought he was talking." Then he visited Palmer in Florida in January, and determined he had a chance.

In Miami, Palmer's old sparring partner Earl Weaver said, 'He didn't know until he tried. Nobody knew until he tried.

"It's tough to stop again on an injury rather than go another two or three times out to see what kind of stuff he had. But I'm glad he gave it a shot, since he wanted to."

Leonhard couldn't decide.

"I suppose," he said, "the whole thing was just too wild."

Palmer's farewell autograph session took place outside the Orioles' clubhouse. He was dressed in a T-shirt and shorts. Whether he knew it or not, the T-shirt was a symbolic choice.

"Die Hard 2," it said, "Die Harder."

The gathering was small; the Orioles played elsewhere in Sarasota last night. Palmer told the dozen or so fans his comeback was finished. He said his hamstring was so bad, he could not even play golf.

"Sorry to hear it," a little boy said.

"If I didn't get this far, it never would have hurt in the first place," Palmer replied.

"You've got to take risks," he told the little boy. "Remember that."

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