Intrasquad snack whets Palmer's Grapefruit appetite But what happens if Palmer is good enough to make club?


SARASOTA, Fla. -- Jim Palmer threw in an intrasquad game yesterday and didn't quit, meaning a lot of people lost money in the office pool.

He wasn't discouraged either -- that was always a sure bet.

Where that leaves us on the comeback trail is right about here: Palmer is starting to enjoy the process, even though he got knocked around a bit over two innings and 38 pitches. He's talking like he wants to stay, and that must give the Orioles pause.

Let's be honest. Although this is a wonderful, nostalgic, good-news, man-against-the-odds, pitcher-against-the-windmill kind of deal, you know the Orioles are hoping that in the end Palmer says thanks for the memories and re-retires to the broadcast booth, where he can discuss un-re-retiring at some future date.

But maybe he won't.

Maybe he'll get enough people out when exhibition season begins to convince himself that this is for real and that even handsome faces can stop a clock.

If nothing else, he looked like the old Jim Palmer out there, the same high kick, the same dark tan. Frank Robinson said he was having flashbacks.

"I looked over at third base and expected to see Brooks," he said.

If Palmer, who allowed four hits and two runs over his two innings, thinks this is deja vu all over again, then what? If he doesn't quit, the Orioles either have to give him a job or cut him. Is that a choice any self-respecting, public-relations-conscious, finger-ever-to-the-wind organization wants to make?

"We understood that when we invited him to camp," Robinson said. "It was pointed out to the organization that if he made the ballclub, it would mean keeping one of the younger guys off."

The what-if questions were put to Robinson directly. What if Palmer has fair success during spring training? What if he doesn't quit? What if, by April, he's throwing as well as, say, John Mitchell, who is a younger player challenging for one of the 10 places reserved for pitchers?

"If you're asking for an answer right now, if it's even, Palmer would make it," Robinson said.

Because he's Jim Palmer?

"Not just because he's Jim Palmer, but that would be part of it. Also because of all the other qualities he would bring with him."

So, this is getting serious. Maybe he could make it. But, whatever Palmer thinks -- and I'm sure he doesn't believe his comeback could in any way be bad for the Orioles -- how could it be good for them?

Does it mean Mitchell loses a spot? Does it mean Jose Mesa would get sent down?

Even if Palmer were good enough to make the club, that's something quite different from being able to help the club, which needs a couple of left-handers in the bullpen and not an aged right-hander in the rotation.

But is any of this really possible?

"I'm impressed," said Bob Melvin, who caught Palmer. "If you didn't know who he was, you wouldn't say he was any different than any other pitcher who had a chance. He didn't throw any worse than anyone else did."

Robinson said he thought Palmer was on track. Pitching coach Al Jackson liked the way he handled himself on the mound. Just not getting blown off the mound in winds gusting up to 25 mph was a plus. Palmer did it without even getting his hair mussed.

But one Oriole, who asked not to be named, asked a reporter how he would answer the question if he were a player.

"Diplomatically?" I said.

"Exactly," the player said.

How do you judge his performance? Before a smallish crowd and a lot of minicams, Palmer got through the first inning allowing only a bloop double. In the second, he gave up a home run (wind-aided) to Chris Hoiles, the first of four consecutive shots, including an RBI single by Luis Mercedes.

Palmer also made a great catch of a line drive by Ernie Whitt, proving, at least, he can still field the position.

In Palmer's view, nothing happened on the mound that should discourage him.

"I honestly think that I can get better," he said. "But I can't assure it."

He was, as usual, charming in a news conference after his performance. It followed this performance by several hours, during which time Palmer iced his arm, stretched, ran, spent time in the trainer's room and asked a lot of people what they thought.

Was he sufficiently pleased with his progress that he was ready to commit for the rest of the spring?

"No, that's too indelible," he said. "It's a comfort thing. If it gets uncomfortable, I'm out of here. There's no reason to prolong it."

Palmer says he'll know when the time comes, and he suggested that he has already been tempted.

"It would be real easy some morning to say, 'Frank, it's been great. Thanks for inviting me to camp. But I'm going back to Miami to play tennis with my wife.' "

Instead, on Monday, he's going to Bradenton to pitch against the Red Sox. No one can say with any confidence where he'll take us from there.

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