If the Baltimore Orioles give 45-year-old Jim Palmer a serious spring-training tryout, they will be making a mistake.
In private life, Palmer is a great guy. In a baseball uniform, he is not. During the last six years of his baseball career, he drove the Orioles' brass crazy, with demands for special treatment, his assorted ailments (real and otherwise) and second-guessing. He infuriated Earl Weaver (which wasn't hard), alienated Hank Peters (which was nearly impossible) and antagonized most of the teammates who'd worshipped him.
On the day the Orioles fired Palmer, he cried. Few others in the organization cried with him.
Everybody sympathized with him and appreciated his 268 wins. And many liked him a lot, in spite of his quirks. But for the most part, the Orioles were glad to get him out of the clubhouse. Palmer went 53-36 in those last six seasons. But the price in turmoil that the Orioles paid was very high for what averaged out to a bunch of 9-6 seasons.
Why is Palmer doing this? The guess here is that it's acute Nolan Envy.
In the '79 ALCS playoff opener, Weaver bypassed Cy Young Award winner Mike Flanagan (who has been invited to the Orioles' training camp this year as a nonroster player) so he could start Palmer (10-6) against Ryan, who had led the league in strikeouts and shutouts.
But Palmer protested, saying that Flanagan deserved the start, that Weaver was wrong.
Weaver wouldn't explain his reasoning for the record. But, privately, he believed Palmer would never lose a big game to Ryan because Ryan inspired every iota of the competitor in Palmer.
Palmer went nine strong innings. Ryan lasted seven. The Orioles won in the 10th. Baltimore went to the World Series.
Now, Ryan is 44 and bigger than ever. He's won 20 games only twice and he's never been in the rotation of a pennant winner. But, historically, he has completely eclipsed Palmer, who was, in their time, the better pitcher. As long as baseball is played, Ryan will be a giant. Palmer may be remembered most for his good looks. That's a bitter irony.
How can Palmer steal some of Nolan's thunder? And, for that matter, how can he one-up Tom Seaver -- who hung on to win 300 games while Palmer couldn't?
Ryan, Palmer and Seaver were friends. But they also measured themselves against each other. They saw themselves locked in a battle for a place in lore. All handsome. All signature fastball pitchers. Ryan got the records. Seaver got the adoring New York press. Palmer got, well, a lot of opportunities to model and relatively little ink, except for his fights with Weaver.
Why would a man pose in his underwear, as Palmer has done for Jockey? It was Palmer's way of moving up in the glamour and glory league. Maybe he was stuck in Baltimore. But his picture was beside every road in America.
Palmer is one of the most intelligent, complex and eccentric men who has ever reached the Hall of Fame. The rule of thumb with Palmer is this: Whatever he seems to be, he's also, in reality, the opposite. He looks calm; he's also a bundle of nerves. He's in fantastically good health; he also worries too much about himself. He looks perfect; he's a compulsive perfectionist whose complexes have complexes. He's kindly, well-mannered and does many good works; he's also self-centered.
This is how friendly the Orioles were with Palmer at the end. A reporter called him to tell him that he was going to be released. Did he have a comment? "They're not going to cut me," he said. Two days later, Palmer was released. The story was in the paper before Palmer was told. That's cold.
On Wednesday, the Orioles sent minor league pitching coach Dick Bosman to Miami to watch Palmer throw batting practice. Some other teams came too.
"His velocity was slightly below average and he had a pretty decent curveball," said Bosman, whose job is to develop young Palmers, not find ways to clog the pipeline with the old one. "Don't ask me if he can get big-league hitters out, because I don't know."
"My elbow felt fine," said Palmer. "I think people are surprised I can throw the ball as well as I can. After two months, I'm not about to give this thing up."
Weaver always said Palmer needed years, not days, between starts. Now, he's had six of them. If Palmer wants to do this, more power to him. Let him have his midlife-crisis comeback. And if some pitching-poor franchise wants to hype the gate with him, go for it.
If the Orioles want to indulge a former star, let it be Flanagan, 39, with lots of favors still due. He'd be a clubhouse leader in any role, no matter how humble. However, if the Orioles, with their team morale and their pitching in good order, let Palmer throw one pitch in Sarasota out of a sense of obligation, they'll regret it.