Come back to reality, Jim, and hang it up


One moment, Jim Palmer says, "I still think I can do it." A minute later, he tells you about the blister on his thumb. And the tightness in his elbow. And the possibility of delaying his comeback until next year.

Oh, the blister is "just about healed," Palmer says, and the elbow problem may simply be the result of a little too much hand-shaking and autograph-signing at a recent electronics show in Las Vegas. Then again, Palmer is 45. Maybe it's time for him to take a hint.

Such talk, of course, is blasphemy to Palmer, who probably could suggest a comeback every year for the next 20 and still captivate a legitimate segment of his intensely devoted following, not merely the lunatic fringe.

So desperately, people want to believe. When a panel of local media was asked to predict the Orioles' Opening Day pitcher at the team's winter carnival, the spectators responded with an answer of their own. "Palmer," they whispered in unison, giggling with delight.

It is indeed something to behold, the prospect of a Hall of Famer daring to reconstruct his field of dreams. Palmer is in such good shape, no one dismisses the idea of hand. As Orioles manager Frank Robinson says, "If anyone can do it, he can."

But already there is the blister, and the elbow tightness, and the talk of "maybe next year." After a one-week layoff, Palmer expects to resume throwing in Florida by tomorrow. He says if his elbow does not respond by the end of the week, he will return to WMAR-TV as the Orioles' play-by-play man this season.

He wants to inform the station of his plans within the next 10 to 14 days. Ideally, scouts from at least four major-league teams -- the Orioles, Milwaukee, Montreal and the Chicago White Sox -- will assess his progress next week. But chances are, Palmer won't even get that far.

Whatever the outcome, he has reached a point where his credibility is at stake. It hardly seems appropriate to scrutinize his deportment the day after Pete Rose is ruled ineligible for the Hall of Fame, but the longer Palmer perpetuates his comeback myth, the greater the risk to his reputation.

Cynics already are snickering at his handpicked pitching guru, Lazaro "Lazer" Collazo. This 26-year-old prodigy, an unpaid assistant coach at the University of Miami, is the trivia buff who told Palmer, "For a guy who's getting into the Hall of Fame, your mechanics are awful."

Palmer politely reminded "Lazer" he already had entered the Hall, but details, details. To hear Collazo tell it, it's amazing Palmer won 268 games with the Orioles; the position of his glove hand was wrong, all wrong. A little tinkering, and voila! Palmer now claims to be throwing better than in 1982, a season in which he finished 15-5.

For argument's sake, let's assume "Lazer" has indeed discovered Palmer's fountain of youth. Then what? The Orioles, Palmer's only team for 19 years, will be obligated to invite him to training camp as a non-roster free agent. "It wouldn't be right if he was doing it with someone else," Robinson says.

Not that Robinson relishes the idea. He says all the right things publicly about Palmer, but his former teammate's presence would be a distraction and possibly even a disruption to the Orioles, regardless of whether he can still pitch. Besides, how long would the novelty last? Would he be a starter or reliever? And what if all his old nagging pains resurface?

"They don't have to sign me," Palmer replies. "It's not my intention to put them in a difficult spot. They have good guys on their staff. They'll make a decision if I can pitch better than them. If not, it'll be somewhere else."

His backup plan is to throw batting practice with the Orioles all season, strengthening his arm in preparation for another comeback try. "I will show them I can still pitch," he insists. "They will see, over the course of the year, that I can pitch at the major-league level."

All this talk is nothing new, but Palmer claims his motivation is not simply to become the first Hall of Famer to return to the major leagues. A contract dispute with ESPN has soured him on the television industry, but most important, he truly believes he can still pitch.

Maybe he's right, but Palmer has so little to gain, so much to lose. Baseball doesn't need a George Foreman. Baseball needs a legend intact. Say it ain't so, Jim. Say it softly and firmly, and say it once and for all.

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