The day starts like any other day. Then you turn on the 6 o'clock news and the anchors are making happy talk and one chirps: "Hey, Jim Palmer just turned 50!" which causes you to do this Jackie Gleason double take and shout: "WHAT?!"
Because there is no way Jim Palmer is 50 years old. No way in the world. Wasn't it just a few years ago that he was blowing fastballs past George Brett and showing off his bod on those Jockey underwear posters, the ones every college co-ed with raging hormones had taped to the wall of her dorm room?
But just to make sure, you pull out the Baseball Encyclopedia and look up James Alvin Palmer, Oriole legend and Hall of Famer, with the sweetest delivery God ever gave a pitcher. And damned if that ditzy anchor on the news didn't get it right.
So you call Jim Palmer at his home in Baltimore County and he picks up on the second ring. You introduce yourself and there is silence, the kind of silence where you can count to five and nobody's talking -- that kind of silence. Still, he doesn't slam the phone down, which is always a plus in your business.
So as tiny beads of blood form on your forehead, you start babbling. Jim, you say, we here at the local fish-wrap would like to do a profile of you, on account of you just hit the big Five-O, which is hard to believe and makes us all come face-to-face with our own mortality and yadda, yadda, yadda.
"Oh, that," he says, in the kind of voice you'd use on a particularly annoying aluminum-siding salesman. "I don't know . . . I'm pretty busy. I'm leaving for Florida soon."
But this is Jim Palmer, who could never say no to anyone pointing a microphone or a pen and note pad in his direction. So in the next breath he says: "I'm shooting some commercials for the Money Store next week. We can talk then."
Cool. So on the appointed day at the appointed hour, you arrive at this unfinished two-story Colonial in a high-rent neighborhood north of Timonium. A huge equipment trailer bearing the logo of Big Shot Productions is parked out front. Inside, the joint is swarming with advertising reps, producers, directors, cameramen, technicians and assorted gofers.
And there, standing serenely in the middle of it all, is Jim Palmer. And the first thing you think is: Let's see a birth certificate here, pal. Because if this man is 50 years old, then he has obviously made some kind of pact with the devil, and you would damn sure like some of that action yourself.
Dressed in a green flannel shirt, jeans and hiking boots, he looks more like a grad student who got lost on his way to the rathskeller. He's long and lean as ever, with the body fat of a greyhound. There's not a hint of gray in his brown hair. A make-up woman is patting his forehead with a powder puff, although God knows why, since there's not a blemish in sight on his cosmetically unaltered face, and he still has that perpetual just-back-from-Aruba tan.
Suddenly the director calls for quiet on the set. Jim Palmer gets his cue, smiles into the camera and begins reading off the TelePrompTer: "If you're thinking about adding a new room, like a bedroom or a family room, the Money Store can help.
Fourteen seconds and he nails it. He nails it as good as you can nail it. It's clean and high-energy, just the way the ad boys like it and everyone on the set seems satisfied.
Everyone except well, one person.
"Does it seem like I'm looking off-camera?" Jim Palmer says.
So they do another take, and then another, and about a dozen more after that. And finally everyone decides it's perfect, including Jim Palmer, who has always known perfection when he sees it.
Introspection is not the strong suit of most ballplayers. When a ballplayer looks deep inside himself, it's usually to decide whether he wants the potato salad or the coleslaw from the post-game spread.
But Jim Palmer could always do introspection -- naked, public introspection. At times it reminded you of a guy trying to save on analysis, unburdening himself to the media instead of stretching out on the Scandinavian leather couch of some $200-an-hour shrink.
When the Orioles released him 11 years ago after a glorious 18-year career, he broke down at the news conference and fled Memorial Stadium. His elbow had all the consistency of string cheese, but he thought he could still pitch. And for months he'd tell anyone who'd listen of all these conflicting emotions roiling in his gut: hurt, humiliation, anger, uncertainty as to whether he should try to sign with another club.
Now a successful entrepreneur who has capitalized on this country's undying fascination with superstar athletes and celebrity, he's no less reluctant to reveal his emotions.
Fifty is euphemistically known as midlife, but Palmer knows better. After all, how many people live to be 100?