Jim Palmer and Earl Weaver, who have had their ups and downs -- sometimes amusing, sometimes serious --are not even talking to each other now. They have never been further down. The humor still lingers around their complex relationship, but it has never been worn thinner.
Weaver admits that Tuesday night in Seattle, he screamed at Palmer, "If we can't talk rationally, then . . . let's fight it out right here on the mound. I'm sick of all this crap of yours. Come on and fight."
Then, by Weaver's account, he chased Palmer off the mound, screamed at him all the way into the clubhouse, then kept on screaming and cursing him for a considerable time. "At least I got to say a few words," says Weaver. "But, knowing Palmer, I'm sure it went right in one ear and out the other. His problem is that he can't listen to anybody."
"I've never seen Earl act so crazy," says Palmer. "And I've seen him act pretty crazy."
"I plan to scream at Palmer for the rest of this season," says Weaver, "because that seems to be the only way I can get his attention."
The odd couple has, however, gone from screaming to silence. If the most significant crisis in their long manager-pitcher partnership isn't at hand, then a lot of people in the Oriole clubhouse are fooled. One scan of the familiar room gives the clue.
Palmer has moved his locker, once the closest of any player to Weaver's office, to the opposite side of the clubhouse. "I don't care if he dresses in the visitors' clubhouse," says Weaver. "When I want him, I'll just send (Coach) Ray Miller over to drag him back by his diaper."
Since the Seattle incident, Palmer says he has a neck injury and hasn't decided if he'll be able to take his turn on Sunday against California. In fact, in a dramatic but vague pronouncement, Palmer says, "I'll have the results back from some medical tests in a week or so and if what I think may be true is in fact true, then my career may be over anyway . . . I have a serious physical problem and have had it since last September."
Palmer's Injury for the Month last September was a stiff neck. And that's what he has again now.
To this, Weaver retorts, "End of his baseball career? He must be talking about a TV contract. Here's a guy who can do anything in life that he wants . . . TV, movies. He can even build himself an underwear factory.
"There's only one thing Jim Palmer can't do and that's motion to me in the dugout and tell me how to manage the Baltimore Orioles. And I'll be damned if that isn't the one thing he wants to do . . .
"I don't care if Palmer pitches or not. It's his career. As far as I'm concerned, he'll take his regular turn until a physical problem prevents it. Then, I'll ask him to go to the bullpen to help. If he can't do that, then he has two choices. He can go on the disabled list. Or he can go sit in the corner and keep quiet and not bother anyone."
At the root of the Palmer-Weaver problem is not so much personal emotion as the reality of a great manager coming to grips with the possible end of a great pitching career. In the past two years, Palmer is 20-15 with only seven complete games in 48 starts. Increasingly, Palmer demands special attention that borders on pampering.
"I hate to see a great career ruined at this stage of the game," says Weaver. "But we've got to find out exactly how much Palmer has left. He has 55 games to win (to get to 300), but if he can't do it, he can't do it. We have to find out, one way or the other.
"He's got to get back the attitude he used to have. He's got to get rid of all this emotion he wastes on blaming other people for everything that goes wrong. Instead of blaming the right fielder for this and the third baseman for that, he has to say, 'That's my fault,' or, 'I can overcome that.'
"It has to go back to the way it used to be when he was 25 to 30 years old. Then, you'd go to the mound and he'd say, 'I don't want anybody comin' in here. I'll take care of this.'
"Now, he's always pitying himself and taking himself out of games and asking for help . . . Those guys in the bullpen have to save games for people besides Palmer."
Palmer says: "They expect me to pitch exactly like I used to and win exactly like I used to. But things change. After 17 years, you ought to be able to tell the manager how you feel, help him reach his decision. At this stage. I know myself better than he does. But Earl is insecure, as always. If it offends him for me to tell him how I feel (on the mound), then that's his problem."
As pained as anyone is Miller, an admirer of both Palmer's pitching and Weaver's managing. For three years, he has been the pair's liaison. Now, he has firmly sided with Weaver.
"Jimmy has to show he can still go out and win or else he risks losing the respect of his teammates," said Miller. "He can't retain the stature he has unless he proves that he can pitch through adversity, pitch through pain. It's not enough when you're 35 to just pitch when you feel perfect. You have to give the team what you have left."
"Jimmy used to be one of the great finishers, but this years he's taken himself out of five or six games when he had a lead. Palmer has to bite the bullet. I don't know if he's ever really had to. I still know that if anybody can keep a game close for his team, it's Jimmy," continued Miller.
"Palmer can't keep putting Earl on the spot with all his antics --moving fielders, complaining, taking himself out, even showing up other players," said Miller. "Earl's trump card is his impartiality, the way he treats all 25 players the same. By demanding special treatment, almost acting like Earl's favorite, or his son, Palmer undermines that.
"There's a feeling on the club that it has to stop."
As is always the case with Palmer and Weaver, a precise accounting of history is essential to understanding the conflict in the present.
On Tuesday night in Seattle, when Weaver yanked Palmer quickly in the sixth inning, they had their worst altercation ever.
After the previous inning, Palmer had told Miller that his arm was stiffening. Miller told Weaver.
The second batter of the sixth hit a homer in the Kingdome. Palmer then made a revolving hand motion, as he has often before over the years, to Weaver in the dugout to get a relief pitcher warmed up.
"That made me mad and I went out and told him so," says Weaver. "Palmer says, 'I know Ray didn't tell you what I said (about arm stiffness).' Well, that made me even madder 'cause nobody's gonna say that about my coaches.
"So, Palmer walks the next batter, and I go out to get (hook) him. I said, 'Let's talk about this rationally.' Palmer says, 'You can't talk rationally about anything.'
"That's when I told him, 'If we can't talk rationally, then let's fight. . . ' "
To that invitation, Palmer laughed.
"I wasn't laughin'," said Weaver. "And I don't think (catcher Rick) Dempsey was laughin'."
"I wasn't laughing," says Dempsey.
And now, as one of baseball's most amusing soap operas has suddenly turned serious, no one in the suddenly rearranged Baltimore clubhouse is laughing.
"Those are Earl's opinions. I don't have to deal with that," said Palmer. "Obviously, no matter what I do is not enough for them anymore . . . Where have I failed to pitch well this year? Where have I let them down? When did I bring the bullpen in early? What he says doesn't bother me one bit. It only bothers me that he's criticizing me publicly now. I don't critique his managing, though in the last couple of weeks it wouldn't be hard to do.
"They're living in the past, but I'm not. I know what I can do. The last time out in Seattle, before I hurt my neck again, my fast ball was at least 5 mph better than its been since the '79 Series. I can still pitch as well as anybody on this ballclub."