This time the picture in the rear view mirror wasn't pretty.Frank Robinson and the principal involved both insisted it didn't necessarily reveal a career-ending collision. But the meeting between Jim Palmer and the Boston Red Sox was more damaging than a routine fender bender.

One day after the Orioles got good reviews after seeing a piece of their future (Mike Mussina) and part of their past (Mike Flanagan) they tried another double-feature. This time the glance backward offered little encouragement.

Palmer was treated roughly by the Red Sox (five hits, two runs in two innings), and it remained for Ben McDonald to restore order. McDonald, the brightest star of the club's present and future starting rotation, worked four scoreless innings, giving up only one hit.

However, McDonald's performance was easily overshadowed by Palmer's first official step on a historic, but improbable, comeback attempt. The Hall of Famer struggled with his control and showed only minimal improvement with his velocity.

With hordes of media members half expecting Palmer to call it quits, the righthander and his manager said it was too early for such a decision. "If the hamstring and Achilles don't allow me to throw tomorrow [today], then obviously that's a different story," said Palmer.

"But Frank has said it would take three starts to make a decision, and that's fine with me. I think it would be premature for me to quit now. I'd like to think that I'll feel good enough to throw. If they want to give me the ball two more times, I'll take it," said Palmer.

Following the Orioles' 3-2 win, Robinson clarified his statement. "What I said was that after three appearances you start to form an opinion," said Robinson.

Robinson appeared to take exception to critical analyses of Palmer's performance. "You guys are trying to judge him because he's 45 years old and a Hall of Famer," said Robinson.

"He's in the program and he'll make his next start unless he tells me he's not going out there," said Robinson. "I don't know when it will be [Friday or Saturday, according to pitching coach Al Jackson]. But he'll be back out there unless he decides otherwise."

When it was suggested that Palmer couldn't continue pitching like he did yesterday, Robinson said: "I don't think he'll continue to pitch like that. I think he'll get better as he goes along. We'll just have to wait and see."

Palmer, who has been hampered by a slight hamstring pull and a sore Achilles' tendon (both in the right leg), emphasized that he has no illusions about this comeback attempt.

"I never said I would make the team," he said. "My goal was to attempt to make it. There's a lot of uncharted territory out there," he said. "I just think I have to give myself enough time. If they're going to give me the ball two more times, I owe it to myself and those who have supported me.

"The intriguing thing about this is that the only way to find out, is to continue," said Palmer. "I'm not worried about the performances as much as I'm worrying about being able to perform.

"I don't want to overreact. I know I have to pitch better than I pitched today. I'm not happy with this performance, but it's a difficult call because I know my arm feels all right."

If nobody in a position of authority is willing to offer a definitive report on Palmer, the same is not true of McDonald. "My mother could scout that guy," said Birdie Tebbetts, special assistant to Orioles general manager Roland Hemond.

Pitching after Palmer, McDonald offered a startling contrast between the old and the new -- even though he moved into the experimental stage yesterday.

"It's time to start adding pitches, and he threw quite a few changeups," said Jackson. "The most important thing is that he threw them for strikes."

The changeup was mostly a rumor in McDonald's arsenal last year, but could be more of a factor in his second big-league season.

"It's a little tough getting the breaking ball over for strikes right now," said the 6-foot-7 righthander, "and you can't just keep throwing fastballs.

"I noticed right away that they [the Red Sox] sensed I wasn't throwing the curve for strikes, so they were sitting on the fastball and they were right on it. I can see the changeup is definitely a pitch that will help me. I was able to throw it for strikes and I could see that it had them holding up a little.

"I don't want to throw it too much, maybe 15 times a game. And as long as I keep it down it's going to help me."

McDonald has now pitched seven innings in exhibition play, allowing three hits and no runs. He's moving comfortably into his role as the staff ace, and Jackson is anxious to stretch him out.