Nice to meet you," said Roy Rogers, in his cowboy boots and white Stetson, shaking hands with Jim Palmer as he toured the Baltimore Orioles' clubhouse this week. "How are you doing?"
Never ask Palmer how he is doing.
"I have an injury to a major muscle in my lower back," said Palmer, emphasizing the words so the Western hero wouldn't think that the Hall of Fame hurler was goldbricking. "I hope to be back about the first of June."
Since putting himself on the 21-day disabled list a fortnight ago, Palmer hasn't talked about his latest injuries--a bad back and stiff neck. It's a sensitive subject, to say the least. Every armchair jock psychologist has the galloping snickers thinking about how the post-Earl Weaver Orioles are getting what, from a distance, looks like the full Palmer hypochondria treatment.
Tuesday, with a certain resignation, Palmer gave his side--a side so logical and familiar, from his perspective, that it depresses him all the more when his explanations are met with incredulity.
"I can imagine the things people are probably saying . . . I don't care what Earl's saying," said Palmer. "It's very disappointing to be hurt . . . and it's annoying to be doubted . . . "
Palmer believes his problems are practically a replay of the previous four seasons. But this time, he's going to follow the Palmer method of rehabilitation, not the Weaver plan for gutting it out.
"The last four years, I've come out of Florida with lower-back injuries, but no arm problems. I have a great reluctance to take time off in the spring with minor aches . . . Maybe I have too much resistance to pain, sometimes . . .
"I got bad advice in Florida (this spring)," Palmer added. "Everybody said, 'Do what you can do. Stop when it starts to hurt.' But that was wrong . . . Dr. (Arthur) Pappas (a Boston specialist) says it needs complete rest and that anything--playing tennis, running sprints--kept it from improving. He said if I kept pitching with it, I would just keep having worse problems, like the stiff neck.
"I've learned my lesson," Palmer said. "You learn through experience. Look at Scotty (McGregor). He pitched when he shouldn't have last year (tendinitis) and it hurt us." (McGregor had a 6.83 ERA and two victories in his last 13 starts). "The same thing with Dennis (Martinez) in '80. He tried to come back too soon and ruined his season.
"You should take the rest you need, especially if there are alternatives. We might have our most talented pitching staff since I've been here. It's not like they can't do without me . . . This is going to help Storm (Davis). He had the toughest job in baseball--long relief, short relief and spot starts--all at (age) 21. Now, he'll be allowed to get into the rotation, which he was going to do in June, anyway."
" . . . If I come back too soon, the doctors tell me I won't be Jim Palmer all year . . . This way, hopefully, I'll be there in June, and in September and October, too . . . Mike Flanagan said most pitchers would be real paranoid about taking this much time off, but, he said, 'You always come back and pitch like you've never been away.' I hope he's right . . . anyway, that's the decision I've made."
At this point, when Palmer became pitcher, physician and manager, Weaver went bonkers.
This time, the Orioles are going along with the program. Oh, Hank Peters may wish he hadn't made a prophetic little jest in Florida. Asked what would have happened if Palmer had managed himself his whole career, Peters replied, "He probably wouldn't have started 100 games . . . Now that's just a little joke."
In a sense, this is a test case for Palmer. For years, he's wanted to be consulted. This season, he's had it his way. And the whole spring has read like a soap opera.
First, Palmer scratched himself from an opening-day start, forcing Manager Joe Altobelli to juggle his rotation. Dennis Martinez, forced into an idle week, went 1-5 in April--perhaps an unrelated development.
When Palmer reappeared, 12 days into the season, he ran off 13 innings without allowing an earned run. Then, before his third start, Palmer complained that his neck was stiff, partly due, he believed to an Oakland hotel not being able to provide him with a foam rubber pillow, forcing him to use the old-fasioned feather kind.
"Little things, like pillows, really can effect you, even though it sounds funny to some people," said Palmer. "As an athlete, you're on the brink of taking your body to its limit all the time."
Palmer missed his next start, which happened to be in Seattle's Kingdome--the park Palmer hates above all others and the site of annual Palmer and Weaver tiffs. Palmer flew to Boston, talked to Pappas and returned to Baltimore with word he was going on the disabled list.
If Palmer is, even unconsciously, playing out some sort of minipsychodrama with his Orioles family, then it may be an expensive episode.
Palmer has an option year in his $500,000 contract that kicks in if he starts 29 games and pitches 203 innings. Now, he won't reach those stats. As a result, if he has a bad year, he could lose big money on his '84 contract.
For the moment, Palmer is in purgatory. Nothing is harder for him than sitting still. He admits he's been doing more than the doctor wants all along.
"They want me to do zero," said Palmer forlornly. "You can only pull so many weeds. I washed the windows today, but I'll be praying for rain tomorrow so I can wash 'em again."