Palmer's return: The real reason


IN THE WARM Florida sunshine, a 45-year-old man named Jim Palmer is attempting to work his way onto the roster of the Baltimore Orioles this spring.

baseball's Hall of Fame after an illustrious career which ended in 1984, when the rest of the American League began hitting him like he was lobbing the ball underhand.

So the question that dogs Palmer is: Why attempt a comeback now? Anyone else would be content to spend his days sitting around a pool and counting his money while barking: "Waiter, this pina colada is too THICK! Have the bartender taken out and horse-whipped."

The answer is simple: The life of a major league baseball player is the greatest life imaginable, and offers thrills far greater than the summary corporal punishment of poolside help.

Certainly, the life of a ballplayer was one I aspired to. Then in my senior year of high school, I realized there might not be much of a demand for a light-hitting second baseman with limited range in the field and a throwing arm that compared favorably only with a fifth-grader's.

So a few years later, I sunk about as far as a man could sink and took a job as a newspaper reporter, which these days is thought to be one step above grave-robbing, although some grave-robbers would certainly debate that.

Thing is, I never stopped dreaming about playing major leaguball. Neither, apparently, did Jim Palmer.

What makes the life so alluring? For one thing, there is the money. Roger Clemens will make $5 million to pitch for the Boston Red Sox this year. Five million! As a former sportswriter -- you talk about grave-robbing -- I have been around Clemens on a number of occasions and found him to have the same cheerful personality as a hangman.

But he also has a 90-mph fastball and a curveball that breaks somewhere out near the third base dugout. Which means that no matter how big a jerk he is, a Wells Fargo truck still backs up to his house each week to deliver his pay.

In addition to making obscene amounts of money, major league ballplayers travel strictly first-class. Chartered jets whisk them from one city to another, thus sparing them from being trapped at 30,000 feet with a runny omelet in front of them and a fat Elks Club member who won't shut up in the next seat.

Ballplayers also stay in all the best hotels. When I'm on the road, it seems I inevitably wind up in a place that looks like the Bates Motel with a room the size of a broom closet next to the ice machine.

Or I have to put up with a psychotic maid who starts banging on my door at 5:30 in the morning to ask if I want my bed made, even though -- and this is a key point here -- I'm still sleeping in it.

Major league ballplayers don't have to put up with nonsense like that in their hotels. Well, maybe they DO deal with psychotic maids. But for $5 mil a year, I could put up with a little psychosis. Or I'd find a way to have the maid bound and gagged until such time as decent people arise and get on with their day.

As far as a ballplayer's actual, ahem, workday is concerned, well, here again it's not exactly breaking rocks in the hot sun.

Between batting and infield practice and the games themselves, you spend six hours or so playing ball in the sunshine on God's green grass, which is not a bad way to kill some time.

When the game ends, there is a nice buffet waiting for you in the clubhouse. And once you get through being interviewed by those snarling, grave-robbing sportswriters, the rest of the evening is basically spent with folks telling you how great you are and how it's an outrage that your name has not yet been placed up for canonization.

Is there a downside to being a ballplayer? One that comes immediately to mind is that your privacy gets stripped away little by little like old wallpaper.

I know (although not personally) that signing autographs can often be a pain in the neck, especially when, say, a drunken vacuum cleaner salesman from Baton Rouge stumbles up to your table in a restaurant and, with gin fumes rolling off him, slurs: "Roger, my 10-year-old would KILL me if I didn't get your autograph!"

Other than grabbing the guy by his Baton Rouge Rod and Gun Club necktie, spinning him into the salad bar and dunking his head in the Thousand Island dressing, there's not much a ballplayer can do in this situation.

Aside from having him horse-whipped, I mean.

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