At 46, life for Palmer remains: Waist not, want not

April 18, 1992|By Jim Van Vliet | Jim Van Vliet,McClatchy News Service

Every home in America has a Hall of Fame. In most cases, it's more a Door of Fame, as mamas use little fruit magnets to turn refrigerators into shrines.

From report cards to class pictures to old phone numbers you have no clue about.

For many years, the only difference with our collection was two pictures we held near and dear to our hearts. One was a newspaper clipping of a distraught Tom Lasorda, head in hand in Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium after the 1983 playoffs. In times of despair, it always lifted our spirits to see the head Dodger in utter misery.

The other was a full-color promotional photo of a 90 percent naked Jim Palmer in his Jockey bikini undies. The boss said she always admired his fastball. She'll be chagrined to learn this morning that the personalized autograph was actually signed by my colleague, Bob Graswich, the hoops expert.

The picture was taken 10 years ago, when Palmer was in the twilight of a Hall of Fame career. And all American men will be chagrined to know that at age 46, nothing has changed. Absolutely nothing.

To all thirty or fortysomething American males, there's little to like about Jim Palmer. No male within whispering distance of his 50th birthday should still be able to make a living modeling underwear. But at the Hyatt Regency in Sacramento, Calif., yesterday, where he was keynote speaker for the annual "Best In Business" awards luncheon, Palmer could easily have passed as the same guy who was winning 20 games a year for the Orioles.

The guys with note pads felt like Burl Ives, self-consciously sucking in their guts as they posed questions. Or at least one of them did.

Seemingly, time has marched on for everyone in the world since Palmer retired from baseball after the 1984 season. All except Palmer.

For those of us who have seen Dave Burba and Rod Beck in just a towel, it suddenly didn't seem so far-fetched that Palmer had tried to make a comeback attempt with Baltimore last spring.

And who knows? If not for a torn hamstring, he might have made it.

The leg injury may finally have convinced him that the broadcast booth was the place to be. But the pitcher within will never die. He still cringes at the sight of hard throwers nibbling at the corners and throwing 3-2 changeups.

"A lot of what's wrong with pitchers today is that they are just not aggressive anymore," Palmer said, fidgeting in his chair as if he were looking for a rosin bag to throw. "Pitchers today don't challenge anybody. I don't care if you throw 85 mph or 95, the fastball has to be your pitch. But pitchers today want to throw the split-finger and the curveball, and the next thing you know, it's a 2-0 count and everybody is yawning.

"I gave up my share of home runs. But most of them were solo shots. Today's pitchers are so enamored with all their variety of pitches, they never get back to basics."

Palmer points to pitchers such as Mike Boddicker.

"In his final years in Baltimore, he wouldn't pitch to anybody," he said. "He got to the point where he didn't want anybody to hit the ball. He went away from everything that made him successful."

Palmer looks at the future of his game and frets. He worries if Ryne Sandberg's $7 million contract means Cal Ripken Jr. will be asking for $10 million.

"When I won 20 games eight out of nine years, I'd have loved to go to arbitration," Palmer said. "But where does it stop? What happens when the TV revenues dry up? Everybody overbid and the effects are being felt. I got nominated for an Ace Award and ESPN wanted me to take a pay cut because they overpaid on the rights fees.

"It's up to [commissioner] Fay Vincent now. He was the syndication expert in Hollywood. Owners don't want to cut costs, they want to perpetuate what they've got. And they are relying on Fay Vincent to figure out a way."

But Palmer doesn't figure to have money problems. He misses the game because he's down to doing 25 games a year for the Orioles' cable network. But there are plans for a talk show next April, and there are still the underwear ads.

And there is always the Florida Marlins.

"I've contacted them," Palmer said of the National League expansion team. "About announcing, not pitching."

Maybe he is mortal after all.

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