As Jim Palmer walked in from the bullpen to await his first big-league start in seven weeks, the customers at Memorial Stadium gave him a polite round of applause spiced with a boo here and there from misanthropes who believe a pitcher ought to work more often than once a summer for his $500,000 salary.
Two hours later, having proven nothing except that his arm won't fall off if forced to throw to major league hitters, Palmer ran from the mound to the showers after giving up 10 hits and four runs to Kansas City in a 6 1/3-inning, 90-pitch performance that was noteworthy more for what it promised than what it delivered today.
So when Palmer made his exit, the customers again were undecided whether to cheer the returning idol ready for the pennant drive or to boo the whimpering, hypochondriacal malingerer who was allowed back with the Orioles only after paying the undignified penance of two starts in Class A. The ambiguity of a cheer/boo was as definitive as this day could be for Palmer, who seemed to have good stuff and yet was trailing, 4-1, when taken out.
Because Palmer left the stadium without talking to the media, the notebooks appeared in front of his catcher, Rick Dempsey, who pleaded the Fifth Amendment.
"If he don't want to sit and talk about his game, I ain't going to talk for him," Dempsey said. "If I say he's not throwing any good, he gets mad at me. And if I say he's throwing good, he says I'm lying. It was a good effort, that's all I can say."
George Brett, hitless in three tries against Palmer, said, "I haven't got three hits this month, off anybody, and you're asking me about Palmer?"
Hal McRae, with a double and home run off Palmer: "He was throwing great."
Amos Otis, two strikeouts in a zero-for-three day: "He had good control, he spotted the ball real well. The way he was throwing, you couldn't tell if he was hurt or not. You expect that from a three-time Cy Young winner . . . From this example today, I'd say he's back."
Where, you might ask, has he been? Palmerologists in sync with the subtle vibrations of the great man's quivering ego say Palmer took to pouting after a 128-pitch game on June 25. He wanted out of that one after the seventh inning, but Manager Joe Altobelli, who believes you make $500,000 the old-fashioned way, wanted Palmer to earn it by going another inning. In that eighth inning against Detroit, Palmer gave up three runs. Soon after, he said he felt pain: the same kind of pain, he allowed, as when Earl Weaver once shanghaied him into 135 pitches. So Palmer skipped out on his next start. When the pout continued a week later, the Orioles put him on the disabled list, a euphemistic move translated in the clubhouse as, "Okay, big boy, take your underwear out of our sight."
Off the 21-day disabled list, Palmer had no spot in the Orioles' starting rotation that had done well in his absence. Mike Flanagan also was coming back to work after ripping a ligament in his knee. One veteran would have to go to Hagerstown to get some live-hitter work, and not even Palmer would suggest it be Flanagan.
The winner in his two Hagerstown starts, Palmer threw 98 pitches a week ago and reported no pain.
The Orioles' general manager, Hank Peters, believes the Hagerstown work helped Palmer psychologically, too.
"Going to Class A was good for him because he was received (by the fans) so well," Peters said. "It was good for his ego. For a guy that was mentally beat down a little, it had to pick him up."
As maddening as Palmer's tics are, there isn't anyone in the Orioles organization who would cut him adrift with the September page turning over on the pennant-race calendar. Now with Palmer, Flanagan, Storm Davis, Scott McGregor and Mike Boddicker, the Orioles have a five-man rotation that gives them strength, experience and versatility in the last month.
"If the Orioles are going to win the whole thing," said Kansas City's Otis, "Palmer has to be in there. The young pitchers have been helping out, but in a pennant race you want Palmer out there."
Though Palmer gave up 10 hits today, his work was promising in that he showed no pain and had both a good fast ball and good change-of-speed stuff. The Royals' first run came when right fielder Dan Ford misplayed a twisting fly into a double. The second run was a wind-blown homer into the first row at the 309-foot mark. McRae's homer, into the teeth of that wind, was the only rocket off Palmer.
"I'm sure we both could be happier," Altobelli said of Palmer. "I'm encouraged if he comes out of it with no pain or strain in his arm."
The pitching coach, Ray Miller, said, "Jim didn't have real good location, but he was throwing free and fluid. He made one bad pitch, to McRae . . . It was a typical exhibition, except for location. His choice of pitches and velocity was good and solid. He looked like the Jimmy of old."