It was Ronald McDonald Day at Municipal Stadium, home of the Hagerstown Suns, and the groundskeepers had moved the bleachers along the left field wall to a city street for a parade last month and never brought them back.
Jim Palmer, a three-time Cy Young award winner with the Baltimore Orioles scheduled to start on a minor league mound, drove up in a Datsun 280Z a few minutes after the Durham Bulls pulled up in a beat-up blue bus blowing a storm of smoke. He wore a blue polo shirt and white pants and everybody wanted his name scribbled across his souvenir program. Jim Palmer looked like a picture and he was in the flesh, in Hagerstown.
Jimmy Carter rolled through Hagerstown four years ago but people here didn't pay a dollar per ticket to see him throw at stubble-chinned boys almost 20 years his junior.
"It matters," Palmer said before the game. "But it doesn't matter. I need the work."
Attendance at the game was 6,192, the most since the Chicken came in July and packed a record 7,311 in the aluminum grandstand, although Brooks Robinson came last week just to sign autographs and nearly that many came. Brooks sat in the bleachers and listened to the rain swish and slam and signed a good 1,000 autographs before Hagerstown let him go.
They love baseball here. And Jim Palmer, the famous pitcher on those underwear ads, was pitching for their Suns. The guy almost certain to walk into Cooperstown five years and a day after his last year in the big leagues was driving 1 1/2 hours from Baltimore to a sandy hardball patch to pitch for the people of Hagerstown and begin his rehabilitation after being on the disabled list since July 3 with tendinitis in his right arm and assorted pains.
It mattered, but it didn't matter. Palmer pitched five innings, threw 73 pitches (three more than he had planned to throw) and got the victory. The final score was 8-6, Suns. The fans of Hagerstown stood and clapped when the public address announcer said "the great Jim Palmer" would pitch again on Aug. 12. Palmer waved and tipped his hat.
"It's the kind of situation," Palmer said, "where if you give up runs you look bad but if you don't give up runs everybody says you're just doing what you're supposed to be doing."
In five innings, Palmer gave up two earned runs. The Suns waited until the fifth to score three runs (Rick Rembielak hit a three-run homer with two out) and spare Palmer the shame of being outpitched by an 18-year-old named Duane Ward, the Atlanta Braves' first-round pick in the July draft.
Everybody wanted to know if Palmer was embarrassed, coming so close to being outdone by a boy who was barely born when Palmer first started playing minor league ball nearly 18 years ago. But Palmer said, "No, I'm not embarrassed. Basically, I did what I came here to do and I was very satisfied. My arm felt great. It was a lot like spring training when you try to get your arm in shape and extend yourself and get ready for the season."
But it was a game, it counted, even though the Durham Bulls are the worst team in the Class A Carolina League's Southern Division and Hagerstown the best. To the people here, it didn't seem quite fair. It was like a whiffle ball Sunday when you were a kid and your old man came out to pinch hit with the bases loaded. It seemed you couldn't lose, that Papa would rear back and slap it deep over the center field pines. Sometimes, though, Papa popped up, and who could believe it? Same thing with Palmer. Who could believe the Durham Bulls would even get the bat on the ball?
"They hit me, sure," Palmer, who gave up seven hits, said after the game. "But how many were hit hard? Like I said, it was a no-win situation. They swing the bat here. But they didn't hit me hard.
"I got more runs than I gave up," Palmer said, "which is nice. I think I did what I was supposed to do."
Palmer said, "If I had had my druthers, I would have stayed in Baltimore doing what Mike (Flanagan) did. I just hope my arm feels this good next time out and I can just throw the ball over the plate."