He’s 75 now, half a lifetime removed from his playing days, but there will still be a twitch in Jim Palmer’s right arm Thursday when baseball season arrives.
No pitcher in Orioles lore has christened the campaign like Palmer, the high-kicking stylist who won five of six Opening Day starts, including two shutouts, two three-hitters and three complete games. His only loss: a 2-1 defeat to the Texas Rangers’ Bert Blyleven, a 10-inning duel in 1977 in which both Hall of Famers went the distance.
Those five victories are a team record for Palmer, now an Orioles broadcaster, who likens Opening Day starts to pitching in the postseason.
“Sure, there are 161 more games, but everyone wants to start off 1-0,” he said. “You want to show the world you’re ready to compete at the highest level.”
April can mess with the mindset of a top-notch pitcher, Palmer said. By definition, Opening Day “takes away everything you’ve accomplished before — and if you won 20 games last year, who wants to start out 0-1?”
It took nearly half of his 19-year career with the Orioles for Palmer to pitch in an opener. When he took the mound April 5, 1974, he was already a four-time 20-game winner, a three-time All-Star and a Cy Young Award recipient, to boot.
“That’s how strong our staff was,” he said. In 1970, the team had three pitchers with at least 20 victories; a year later, it had four (Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson).
“Imagine being [manager] Earl Weaver and thinking, ‘Which 20-game winner should I start on Opening Day?’” he said.
When Palmer finally got the call, he dominated. In 1974, he defeated Detroit, 3-2, besting Tigers ace Mickey Lolich at Memorial Stadium in a game that took its toll. Afterward, The Sun described No. 22 as “looking like an Egyptian mummy on trainer Ralph Salvon’s rubdown table with ice packs strapped to his right shoulder and upper and lower back, and his right elbow immersed in a tub of cracked ice.”
“How’s the arm, Jim?” reporters asked.
“It hurts, but ... being 1-0, that eases the pain,” he said.
The following spring, he cuffed Detroit again, 10-0, at Tiger Stadium on a day better fit for football. He remembers the phone greeting that morning:
“Mr. Palmer, this is your 8:30 wake-up call. The temperature is 28 degrees. Go get ‘em.”
At game time, he said, it was so cold that during the singing of the national anthem, “I had to put on my jacket between the first and second verse. Then, in the first inning, [first baseman] Lee May hit a three-run home run and it didn’t feel so cold.”
Palmer allowed three hits and no Tiger reached second base. But his best effort might have come in 1976. Before a then-record Opening Day crowd of 46,425 at home, he pitched eight innings in a 1-0 win over Boston’s Fergie Jenkins, also bound for Cooperstown. That gem now has Palmer scratching his head.
“What’s remarkable is that I can’t remember that game to save my life,” he said.
Palmer’s lone defeat came in 1977 when, in the 10th inning, he allowed a double on a wind-swept fly that fooled rookie center fielder Larry Harlow. Texas scored on an RBI single by Bump Wills, whose father, Maury, had played for the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost to the Orioles in the 1966 World Series.
“I guess Bump’s hit was retribution for us having beaten his dad’s team, four straight,” Palmer said.
Weather also snarled his last two openers. In 1979, battling wind gusts of 50 mph, Palmer pitched a three-hitter to defeat the visiting Chicago White Sox.
“Didn’t throw a curve all game,” he said afterward. The win was the 1,000th of Weaver’s career. In the clubhouse, photographers coaxed the two men, oft at odds, to pose for a picture.
“Is this really necessary?” Palmer asked, tongue-in-cheek.
A year later, he again dispatched the White Sox, 5-3, on a day when the wind chill in Chicago was a biting 22 degrees.
Palmer took the challenge in stride.
“Pitchers always have the edge in games like this,” he said afterward, “because we’re the ones who are always moving around [to stay warm].”
He retired in 1984 with 268 career wins.
“That was a lifetime ago,” Palmer said. Come Thursday, however, when the Orioles play the Red Sox in Boston, he just might finger a ball or two. For old times’ sake.