Jim Palmer, the Cy Young Award winner who cried "wolf," now is paying a cruel price for his years of prankish candor.
"I'm tired of opening letters that begin, "Go to hell, Palmer,"" says the Baltimore Oriole who probably is one of the dozen greatest pitchers in baseball history.
"I picked up a Baltimore magazine recently that called me "the man you'd least want your son to grow up to be like.""
While his Oriole teammates, the underdog toasts of the game, began an 11-day road trip last night, Palmer remained out of uniform on the 21-day disabled list: a self-imposed purgatory.
As Palmer well knows, many a Baltimore fan believes that the hurler who earns $260,000 this season barely is hurt at all and that, because of his pique at management, he is malingering openly.
It is the buzz of Bal'mer that Palmer is black-mailing his ball club into a trade or trying to force a pay raise by withholding his Hall of Fame talent in a time of pennant-race euphoria.
The nature of this season's scrappy Orioles has brought Palmer and his career-long penchants for worries, complaints and nagging minor injuries into particularly stark contrast.
When 24 bedraggled Birds are all pulling in one direction, it is hard to sympathize with the one peacock who is watching the others work because he has "mild-tendinitis of the elbow."
"Jim Palmer has earned the right to be a hero here. It's a shame he isn't one," says O's General Manager Hank Peters. "He's badly damaged his reputation in this community."
When Palmer, 33, talks about these difficult, almost unbelievably bitter days, his voice is so soft that he hardly seems to be talking at all, as though his subconscious is dragging up indigestible morsels that he cannot forget.
"I always come out the bad guy here, or the greedy guy," he says. "People think my injuries are faked, or that my being disabled is a trick to get money or force a trade.
"That just seems crazy to me. Everything's backwards. People don't understand me at all. And that's what hurts me far more than any money disagreements I've had - it's not being appreciated, not feeling you're loved.
"I could go somewhere else, some other city, and be just the way I am - outspoken and honest, and I'd be liked for it. I'm sure of it."
To much of America, it may still be a shock to realize that Palmer, who joined Walter Johnson and Lefty Grove as the American League's only eight-time 20-game winners, is by far the most-booed Oriole.
It seems to Palmer that he has been in this bewildering and tangled limbo a lifetime. If he wrote an autobiography, it might be called "The Prisoner of Baltimore," Palmer orphaned as a child, has for years felt himself on the verge of being pushed out of the Oriole family.
In Palmer's eyes, at least, his whole career seems to have gone through some malicious inversion so that the public sees him and his deeds as diametrically opposite to what they are.
"Hey, I'm not the greedy one," he says, almost pleadingly. I'm the loyal one. I'm the one who was so anxious to do the right thing and have everybody like me that I signed an extension at the club's request when I didn't have to. I'm the guy who stayed.""
Throughout his turbulent career, the glamorous Palmer always has shown one gift as remarkable as his fast ball - a memory that could recall a sequence of pitches a decade ago. "I've never seen a memory like Palmer's," says Manager Earl Weaver.
Now his total recall seems almost a curse. "I remember all these things," says Palmer as they well up in him. "I can't seem to forget them."
His first $100 pay raise in the minors still raises his ire. "I practically had to beg," he says.
Most bitter of all, he recalls the back-and-shoulder injuries that bounced him from the 1966 World Series to Class A ball in 1967 and 1968, almost ending his career before it truly began.
"Here I was 21 years old and they had me convinced that all my problems were in my head. I was asking myself, "What's wrong with me? Why don't I want to pitch?
"Sure," says Palmer, his voice at its most sarcastic level, and this from a man who is perpetually sardonic. "I wanted to be in Elmira and Miami and Rochester where a hot shower was the only therapy.
"Ask Terry Crowley how much fun I had pitching in '67 when he must've lost five pounds a game chasing the gappers they hit off me.
"But that tag has always been with me. The '74 season was another perfect example. I came back three weeks too soon to help 'em down the stretch," says Palmer, wpinning off statistics from those starts like a reference book.
"I risked my career for the club. You know what they offered me the next year? A 20 percent cut. What gratitude - but typical."
Palmer insists that "I don't try to bring all this on myself, like Reggie Jackson does."
Yet Palmer fails to see that he may hold all-time records for carrying a grudge and never forgetting a slight. He still remembers that in 1966, "Jim Lonborg (of Boston) was 10-17 and got $22,000, while I was 15-10 and only got $15,000."
Palmer's last high-water mark of popularity came in the winter of '76 when the mayor of Baltimore and the governor of Maryland headed a banquet for Gentleman Jim - the Oriole who stayed, when Jackson, Bobby Grich and Wayne Garland left.
Even then, the final souring of Palmer's disposition was in the works. "The club expects loyalty; but they don't return it. You keep meeting double standards," says Palmer, to whom those two words - "loyalty" and "standards" - are recurring terms.
Those two matters meet when the subject is cold cash.
"That year, they offered Reggie $400,000 after hed been in Baltimroe five months. They offered me half of that after I'd put in 12 years.
"It isn't that money is so important to me. I could always accept that I made $40,000 less than Tom Seaver even though we had comparable careers. So what? But when it got to be that I was making $300,000 less than pitchers like Dennis Eckersley, who have, in reality, had one good year, you start to wonder. It nags at you.
"No wonder Eckersley is awlays smiling. Every time he looks at his paycheck I'm sure his arm hurts less. Making $560,000 a year has a way of making you think everything's going to be all right.
"I could pitch right now," Palmer says. "Of course, you can always pitch one game. But could I pitch the last two months of the season? I doubt it."
Then, perhaps letting his anger cloud his judgment, Palmer jumps off the deep end once more.
"I'm not going to risk my career. Maybe if I were making more money, I might be willing to take that calculated risk. But I'm not. I know that management is never going to pay me more unless they have to, and, since I'm signed through '81, they'll never have to, so that's that".
For the past three years, ever since that winter-long salary struggle of pre-1977, Palmer perversely has delighted in calling his own motives into question.
Palmer has asked to be traded, planted trade rumors, criticized teammates, critiqued his club accurately but acerbically, and repeatedly blasted Peters.
In spring training '77, he said, "the Orioles stink," and added, "we're not competitive."
In return, Palmer's mates have felt free to rip him. After he gave up five homers in one '77 game, his catcher, Rick Dempsey, said acidly, "Palmer quit competing."
Last season, when Palmer walked off the mound in the eighth inning of a 1-0 game after his left fielder botched a play, two of the veteran O's said, "Palmer has always begged off under pressure."
Weaver has been continually caught in the middle - smoothing feathers between Palmer and his teammates, or between Palmer and the front office.
Usually, Weaver jokes, saying for instance, "The Chinese tell time by "The Year of the Dragon," and "The Year of the Horse."
"I tell time by Palmer - "The Year of the Ulna Nerve." The Year of the Shoulder, The Year of the Elbow."
But, sometimes, Weaver blows a gasket with the player whom he treats like a difficult, but gifted son. This season, a furious Weaver took a clipping of Palmer's umpteenth rip-the-O's story in an out-of-town newspaper and pinned it to Palmer's locker with the words, scrawled in red ink, "Happy Father's Day.Now grow up."
It has been Weaver's good fortune that he has a knack for laughing and forgetting. It is Palmer's misfortune that he usually opts for serious and tangled debate, the endless scholarly discussion of nuance - and he always remembers.
"A good deal of what Jim has done for the last three years has been viewed within the club with what you might call incredulity," said one member of the Oriole family. "Jim has made so many self-contradictory statements that they've come back to haunt him. It's reached the point where less and less people believe what he says."
That is Palmer's dilemma - one which almost stupefies him, since one of the underpinnings of his behavior is an absolutely adamant belief in telling the truth - even when it hurts.
"It's so obvious that I'd love to be part of what's going on this season that I can't believe anybody would doubt it," he says. "I've done everything in my power to have a good year. In fact, I've probably done too much - that's the problem.
"I pitched on Opening Day on a raw, cold afternoon so somebody else wouldn't have to start - that was totally stupid, probably. But I was trying to show the team that I would take a risk to help them.
"Then I hurt my back so I couldn't arch it. Instead of giving it enough rest, which probably would have saved my whole season, I developed a new windup so I could keep everybody happy.
"When I went to Dr. (Robert) Kerlan with my tendinitis in the elbow, he said, "Have you been dropping your arm down?"
"I said, "For three months with this new delivery."
"He said, "Well, why do you think your elbow hurts?""
For years, Palmer's durability has been questioned. Yet, beyond question, he is one of the most durable pitchers in history, averaging more than 290 innings for the previous nine seasons and leading the AL in innings the past three years.
"That's what gripes me worse than anything," says Palmer.
"I've had four cortisone shots this year - and every one is a liability to your career. Does that sound like someone who doesn't want to pitch?
"I'm sick of doing stupid things to please other people. I'm going to do what I think is right.
"Of course the fans, and some of our players, are upset. To them, it's an emotional issue. They don't want me to be hurt, so, to them, that means I must not really be hurt.
"You have to make distinctions. First, I don't play for the fans, because they never change. They boo me before the game. Then, if I win, they cheer.
"Second, I separate money and performance. Jerry (Hoffberger) is Jerry and my teammates are my teammates. I can't let my feelings toward him get in the way of helping my teammates.
"If this were the end of August, not the end of July, I might be pitching. But it's not. I'm trying to rest so that when I come back I pitch more than three starts in a row before I break down again. When it's most important, I want to be out there."
Those are the words that every Oriole hopes that Palmer truly means.
Few things are more corrosive to self-analysis than self-pity. Whatever strengths Palmer has, he has been wading ever deeper into a quagmire of self-pity, bordering on baseball paranoia, for three seasons.
Always a perfectionist, Palmer has become almost obsessive about nagging details - the roundness of balls or the positioning of outfielders.
Weaver insists on telling Palmer a hard truth - "You're never going to feel perfect on the mound again. You're 33 and you've pitched over 3,000 innings."
Palmer counters with the unrealistic answer, "What I need is a full year of rest for my arm - not an off season but an off year."
Weaver, if he had his way, would offer a simple solution to Palmer's pyschic woes: "Pitch with pain."
Weaver, however, always has lived in the land of make do and gut it out. By contrast, Palmer always has been the artist with the diamond for a canvas. He more than pitched games; he defined them. So, understandably, the two have reached an impasse.
"I'll come back as soon as I can pitch exceptionally," said Palmer, immediately catching his slip of the tongue and amending, "I mean, as soon as I can pitch effectively." CAPTION: Picture, The Cy Young Award winner of other years is hardly the toast of Baltimore as he remains removed from pitching. AP