Bouton: Let Palmer start in minor leagues


Jim Palmer has not come back to anything yet. But if he achieves the improbable and throws even one more pitch in a major-league game, he instantly will become a walking record book.

First Hall of Famer to give it another shot. First 45-year-old pitcher who has part-time work as a sex symbol. Only active player in the 1990s who personally knew Rudy Vallee.

Many people are rooting for Palmer, including Jim Bouton of Teaneck, N.J. Bouton is not the ordinary fan. He is a former baseball player who pitched successfully in the major leagues, retired to civilian life and wrote a baseball best seller, "Ball Four," then returned to the major leagues to doubts and snickers.

Bouton says Palmer's comeback is a fine idea, but it could have been better if the former, and perhaps future, Baltimore Orioles great had chosen a different path to the major leagues.

"I'd love to see him go back to the minor leagues," Bouton said last week. "I think he'd work harder that way. Otherwise, it's just a celebrity walk-on.

"He can't be taking [the comeback attempt] as seriously as he would if he were forced to get there on merit. Let's say he pitches a few games in the major leagues and does well. He won't really know anything from that. If he goes down to the minor leagues for a summer, he'll know whether he deserves a chance."

Bouton, 51, admits his outlook is colored by his experience. He pitched nine years for the New York Yankees, the defunct Seattle Pilots and the Houston Astros before his career was ended in 1970 by arm troubles and a knuckleball that didn't always knuckle.

By most standards, it was a fabulous retirement. For the next seven years, Bouton remained in the public eye as a New York sportscaster and through his book that revealed even a baseball player has a vice or two, or six.

In 1977, Bouton decided he wanted something more. He wanted to pitch.

"My thing was probably just craziness," he said. "Looking back, it was probably a mid-life crisis."

Bouton, then 38, spent a summer in search of his knuckleball and a team that would not release him, and almost found neither. He pitched for three teams and compiled won-loss records of 0-5, 1-5 and, finally, at Portland, Ore., "where I got hot," 3-5.

The next spring, he was back in the minors. He rode buses. He ate the fastest fast food. And, in 2 1/2 months, he won 13 games for the Atlanta Braves' Class AA team.

"I was the best pitcher in their minor-league system," Bouton said. "They had no choice but to call me up on the merits of it."

Bouton made five starts for the Braves. He won one game and, he says, pitched well in three of them. When the season ended, so did his comeback. He quit.

"I wanted the challenge of seeing whether I could come back. I wanted that more than living the life of a big-league player," said Bouton, now an entrepreneur whose products include "Big League Chew," bubble gum shredded, pouched and disguised as chewing tobacco, and "Collecta Books," baseball-card-sized volumes with stories on baseball players.

"To me, the fun of making the comeback was knowing that I had actually earned my way to the big leagues twice. No one was letting me walk onto the baseball field because I wrote 'Ball Four.' I had to prove it to them and, more important, prove it to myself."

Bouton isn't the only human who can speak with authority about the etiquette of comebacks. There is, for instance, Bill Virdon, who was a National League outfielder from 1955 to 1965 and then again for six games in 1968.

Virdon's comeback, with the Pittsburgh Pirates, was more an order than an adventure. Several Pirates were called to National Guard service, leaving the roster depleted. Virdon, then a 37-year-old Pirates coach, was a likely and convenient replacement. He batted three times and, in his last at-bat, hit a home run off the Cincinnati Reds' Ted Abernathy.

Virdon circled the bases, stepped on the plate and neve returned to the batter's box. Did he contemplate a real comeback? Virdon, a former manager with the Pirates, Yankees and Astros and now a spring-training coach with the Pirates, said no, firmly. "I can answer that very quickly."

Despite their comeback bond, Virdon hardly seems consumed with thoughts of Palmer.

"I don't know that I have strong feelings," he said. "There's no question he's a great athlete. He's the only one who knows whether he has any chance at all."

Virdon does have strong ideas about what Bouton has said about the minors. He doesn't believe it. The Orioles invited Palmer, and so Palmer is right to show up each day with the big-leaguers, Virdon said.

"If someone is willing to give him that chance, he should accept," Virdon said. "He's earned the right. All you have to do is look at the past performance."

No one knows whether Palmer, or any man who has a daughter who's older (Jamie, 24) than many of his teammates (including Orioles pitcher Ben McDonald), realistically can hope to pitch well in the major leagues. In fact, no one has been quicker to point this out than Palmer himself. But among members of the Comeback Club, there is an interesting range of thought, from nearly impossible to why not?

Jerry Grote, a catcher for 15 years with the New York Mets and Astros, retired in 1978. By 1981, Grote had been through a divorce and was looking for steady work. He found it for one season with the Kansas City Royals and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He played 24 games and batted .293. Listening to Grote now, it's not clear whether he ever retired.

"I could do today what third-string catchers are doing in the big leagues, and do it 10 times better," Grote said from his home in Austin, Texas, last week. "And I'm 48."

Virdon made his comeback seem about as daring as lacing a shoe.

"I was 37. I'd stayed very active and so forth," he said. "It wasn't like an amateur coming back with no idea."

Bouton, as usual, focused on the irreverent side. He said Palmer should not expect to be overwhelmed by the work.

"He'll be sore as hell, that's all," Bouton said. "But he was sore as hell when he pitched when he was younger."

As for evaluating Palmer's pitching prowess, Bouton said this will be the easiest part. Palmer will pitch. The hitters will do the rest.

"There is a great system in baseball for determining if a pitcher is ready," he said. "It is called opposing batters. It's infallible, the quintessential market research. You don't even have to wait a week for the printouts. They tell you immediately."

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