WEATHER and the gods cooperating, he was to take the mound again today -- 45-year-old Jim Palmer, driven by who-knows-what to return to baseball. The graceful Oriole pitching legend is trying to defy the long, long odds, and cynics and romantics alike can only root for him.
One's mind fast-reverses to a fall day a quarter-century ago. Oct. 6, 1966. Game 2 of the World Series between world champion Los Angeles Dodgers and upstart AL winners, the Orioles of Baltimore, paced by triple-crown winner Frank Robinson. This one appeared a mismatch. Playing at home, the champs, smarting from their first-game loss to the fledgling Birds, had their great southpaw, Sandy Koufax, going against a 20-year-old right-hander who'd had a respectable 15-10 year but a 3.46 ERA, exactly double the sparkling 1.73 of the Dodger ace. Koufax, 27-9, had averaged over 24 wins and 300 strikeouts in his prior four seasons. Surely the young Orioles would be content with a road split in their first post-season appearance.
But after six, Koufax, betrayed by a porous defense, was gone and Jim Palmer cruised on to a shutout win. The Birds were to sweep the champions, never allowing another run. The brilliant Koufax retired after that loss, to be joined in Cooperstown 20 years later by the kid who beat him that day. The game that ended one Hall of Fame saga launched another.
Fate was to play another trick, however, when Palmer's career almost ended the next spring. A rotator cuff injury, so feared and so seldom fully overcome, sidelined him early in '67, and not until 1969 did he return to the majors, racking up a stunning 16-4 record. Then followed his superb performance in the decade of the '70s, winning 20 or more in eight of the next nine seasons.
Almost 25 years since that autumn day when the underdog bested Koufax, Palmer labors in the Florida sun, striving to whip the odds yet again and go north with the team he honored for so long. What motivates Jim Palmer's unprecedented comeback try? The answer must lie in his head as much as his arm. It was always that way. He not only threw; he thought. When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame last summer, baseball men spoke of the immense will that complemented the near-perfect body. They recalled not only his fluid-as-a-spring-brook motion, but the constant, almost imperious, positioning of his defense. The charge that his well-publicized ills were more mental than physical is belied by Palmer's numbers. Competitiveness drove him, the push for perfection plagued him, and clearly they still do.
James Alvin Palmer will give it his best in Frank's camp, and he will not embarrass himself. Those are habits of a lifetime, not to be broken now. The best baseball stories still are made in our city: just the chance of a staff with the youth and talent of Ben McDonald and Gregg Olson, as well as the wisdom and guts of Mike Flanagan and Jim Palmer makes this a special time.
All the best, Cakes. That's a mighty big mountain you've chosen to climb. Many of us urge you on.
Milton Bates writes from Baltimore.