Palmer returns with eye on history


SARASOTA, Fla. -- Even the uniform had to come out of retirement, but there was No. 22, throwing with the same smooth motion that carried Jim Palmer to the Hall of Fame. Only the velocity had been changed.

Palmer didn't push it, and he didn't have to. He showed up at Twin Lakes Park yesterday morning, which some considered an upset in itself. He went through a day of fundamental drills with 40 teammates, many of them less than half his 45 years. He handled the media with wit and charm. Nobody expected him to throw hard on his first day, but nobody came to see him model underwear, either.

The clouds had gathered over Sarasota to threaten his historic first workout, but Palmer -- the Baltimore Orioles' newest and oldest pitcher -- threw for 10 minutes in front of pitching coach Al Jackson, a couple of hundred spectators and a crowd of reporters.

"It was fun," Palmer said, "but I told Frank Robinson and Roland Hemond that I don't want this to be a media circus. I don't need to draw a lot of attention to me. The important thing is, did I stay healthy? Did I do the things I have to do?"

Did he also have a news conference? Yes, but that was at the request of the club. Hall of Famers don't come out of retirement every day.

Robinson didn't even come over to watch him throw, though that should not be construed as a sign of disinterest. He met with Palmer yesterday morning and told him not to feel pressure to prove anything in the first few days of training camp.

"There was no sense in watching," Robinson said. "I'm not going to judge him on what he did today. The important thing is for the pitching coach to see him and get familiar with him."

But if Robinson had decided to watch, he would have seen more than a flash from the past. Palmer was working out side-by-side with an important piece of the Orioles' pitching future. A few feet to his left, Arthur Rhodes, 21, was popping the glove with his 90-mph fastball.

"I told Al Jackson, 'Put him on my left, because I don't want to have to look at him,' " Palmer said. "I could tell he has a very live arm. He didn't throw any strikes, did he?"

Behind Rhodes was left-hander Mike Linskey. Behind him was hard-throwing Dave Martinez. A couple of mounds over was No. 1 draft choice Mike Mussina. When Palmer left the mound, he was immediately replaced by No. 1 starter Ben McDonald.

"Jeff Ballard told me I'm old enough to be his father, and he's 27," Palmer said. "There's some truth to that. The players don't look as young from up in the broadcast booth as they do on the field."

Rhodes tried to keep his mind on his own work, but he was aware that the greatest pitcher in Orioles history was throwing just a few feet away.

"I just tried to look at the target the whole time," he said. "If I take my eyes off the target, I'm going to be throwing the ball off the fence. But it was hard not to look at him. He's such a famous player. He had good mechanics. He threw the ball well."

It was a study in contrast, but Palmer concedes that he is not that kind of pitcher anymore. He was a hard thrower in his youth, too. Now, he hopes that age and experience can pick up where his velocity leaves off.

"For me to say that I could be as good as I was, that would be silly," Palmer said. "But if I can go six or seven good innings on a regular basis, that's something I think is possible. I may turn out to be wrong, but that's what I'm here to find out.

"It's a real long shot that I'm going to make this ballclub, but you never know what's going to happen. If I don't make it, I hope that I can be a good influence on the young pitchers. If nothing else, it'll help me as a broadcaster because I'll know all of them better."

Palmer is forever having to explain himself. He embarked on this unlikely comeback attempt because (a) he thought he retired prematurely; (b) he refused to accept a pay cut from ESPN; (c) his arm is healthier than it was when the Orioles released him in 1984; and (d) he saw a chance -- however long -- of cashing in on baseball's salary boom.

By way of further explanation, Palmer borrowed a quote from ballet dancer Erik Bruhn, who convinced close friend Rudolf Nureyev to resume his career despite his advancing years and declining skills.

"He said something like this," Palmer recalled, " 'The bottom line is: Why shouldn't I keep dancing? Everything I have done great has been recorded in history. I mean, it's already been written down.' "

Everyone seems skeptical, Palmer included, but he appears to be in excellent physical condition and says he's pitching without pain or stiffness.

"I don't know if he can do it," said former teammate Elrod Hendricks, "but if anyone can do it, he can. It's been an obsession with him. He wanted to be the first Hall of Famer to come back. It wasn't something that just came up overnight."

How long can it last? Robinson told him to take the entire six weeks of spring training to get ready to pitch. WMAR-TV took some of the outside pressure off by assuring him his broadcasting job would be waiting for him whenever he decided to come back. His wife and friends are encouraging him to take it to the limit. If nothing else, he's getting the opportunity to get this out of his system once and for all.

"There's one thing I do know," Hendricks said. "We will not have to make the decision for Jim Palmer. He has too much pride in himself. He has high expectations for himself, and, if he doesn't reach those standards, he'll know. He's not going to do anything to embarrass himself or his ballclub."

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