Still Perfect at 50 Jim Palmer: The Oriole legend and Hall of Famer has birthdays like the rest of us, but he never seems to age.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The day starts like any other day. Then you turn on the 6 o'clock news and the anchors are making happy talk and one chirps: "Hey, Jim Palmer just turned 50!" which causes you to do this Jackie Gleason double take and shout: "WHAT?!"

Because there is no way Jim Palmer is 50 years old. No way in the world. Wasn't it just a few years ago that he was blowing fastballs past George Brett and showing off his bod on those Jockey underwear posters, the ones every college co-ed with raging hormones had taped to the wall of her dorm room?

But just to make sure, you pull out the Baseball Encyclopedia and look up James Alvin Palmer, Oriole legend and Hall of Famer, with the sweetest delivery God ever gave a pitcher. And damned if that ditzy anchor on the news didn't get it right.

So you call Jim Palmer at his home in Baltimore County and he picks up on the second ring. You introduce yourself and there is silence, the kind of silence where you can count to five and nobody's talking -- that kind of silence. Still, he doesn't slam the phone down, which is always a plus in your business.

So as tiny beads of blood form on your forehead, you start babbling. Jim, you say, we here at the local fish-wrap would like to do a profile of you, on account of you just hit the big Five-O, which is hard to believe and makes us all come face-to-face with our own mortality and yadda, yadda, yadda.

"Oh, that," he says, in the kind of voice you'd use on a particularly annoying aluminum-siding salesman. "I don't know . . . I'm pretty busy. I'm leaving for Florida soon."

But this is Jim Palmer, who could never say no to anyone pointing a microphone or a pen and note pad in his direction. So in the next breath he says: "I'm shooting some commercials for the Money Store next week. We can talk then."

Cool. So on the appointed day at the appointed hour, you arrive at this unfinished two-story Colonial in a high-rent neighborhood north of Timonium. A huge equipment trailer bearing the logo of Big Shot Productions is parked out front. Inside, the joint is swarming with advertising reps, producers, directors, cameramen, technicians and assorted gofers.

And there, standing serenely in the middle of it all, is Jim Palmer. And the first thing you think is: Let's see a birth certificate here, pal. Because if this man is 50 years old, then he has obviously made some kind of pact with the devil, and you would damn sure like some of that action yourself.

Dressed in a green flannel shirt, jeans and hiking boots, he looks more like a grad student who got lost on his way to the rathskeller. He's long and lean as ever, with the body fat of a greyhound. There's not a hint of gray in his brown hair. A make-up woman is patting his forehead with a powder puff, although God knows why, since there's not a blemish in sight on his cosmetically unaltered face, and he still has that perpetual just-back-from-Aruba tan.

Suddenly the director calls for quiet on the set. Jim Palmer gets his cue, smiles into the camera and begins reading off the TelePrompTer: "If you're thinking about adding a new room, like a bedroom or a family room, the Money Store can help.

Fourteen seconds and he nails it. He nails it as good as you can nail it. It's clean and high-energy, just the way the ad boys like it and everyone on the set seems satisfied.

Everyone except well, one person.

"Does it seem like I'm looking off-camera?" Jim Palmer says.

So they do another take, and then another, and about a dozen more after that. And finally everyone decides it's perfect, including Jim Palmer, who has always known perfection when he sees it.

Looking inward

Introspection is not the strong suit of most ballplayers. When a ballplayer looks deep inside himself, it's usually to decide whether he wants the potato salad or the coleslaw from the post-game spread.

But Jim Palmer could always do introspection -- naked, public introspection. At times it reminded you of a guy trying to save on analysis, unburdening himself to the media instead of stretching out on the Scandinavian leather couch of some $200-an-hour shrink.

When the Orioles released him 11 years ago after a glorious 18-year career, he broke down at the news conference and fled Memorial Stadium. His elbow had all the consistency of string cheese, but he thought he could still pitch. And for months he'd tell anyone who'd listen of all these conflicting emotions roiling in his gut: hurt, humiliation, anger, uncertainty as to whether he should try to sign with another club.

Now a successful entrepreneur who has capitalized on this country's undying fascination with superstar athletes and celebrity, he's no less reluctant to reveal his emotions.

Fifty is euphemistically known as midlife, but Palmer knows better. After all, how many people live to be 100?

"Tim McCarver always says: 'You know, we're all just snowflakes,' " he says of his baseball broadcast partner for ABC Sports. "All you have to do is pick up the paper and read the obituaries and the front page where people are tragically shot. In a society where life seems to be less valuable than it was, once you get to be 50, you value your life even more."

This is vintage Jim Palmer, which means he's unfailingly polite and thoughtful during an interview, but you don't exactly get answers delivered in neat, succinct phrases. He tends to, uh, run on some.

"People say I have it made," he says now during a break in the Money Store shoot. "I do have it made. I've got a good life, I'm 50 and I'm in good health."

Suddenly his voice takes on an edge: "But it's not like I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I earned what I made."

This is how he earns a living: He's been a color analyst for ABC-Sports since 1978 and last month broadcast the League Championship Series and World Series with colleagues Al Michaels and McCarver.

He does color commentary on Oriole telecasts for HTS. He still works for Jockey in a promotional capacity (although he stopped modeling a few years ago.) He does motivational speeches for big companies like General Mills and Mutual of Omaha (minimum fee: $10,000).

He has a book due out in the spring -- one of those as-told-to jobs with former W. B. Doner CEO Jim Dale -- called "Together We Were 11-Foot-9" about his tempestuous relationship with ex-Orioles manager Earl Weaver.

And three years ago, he replaced Phil Rizzuto -- the poor guy had the misfortune to age and actually show it -- as the national spokesman for the Money Store, a major home equity lender.

"Even though he's a 'name' personality, Jim comes across as very natural," says Mauro Appezzato, director of advertising for the Money Store. "He could be your next-door neighbor."

Of course, this is only if your next-door neighbor happens to be a three-time Cy Young Award winner, movie-star handsome, articulate and as obsessive about being prepared for the business world as he was about studying American League hitters.

"You get out of baseball, and you find the same work ethic that applies to baseball applies to other professions," Jim Palmer says.

People who know him say there is an inner peace evident in Jim Palmer that was not always noticeable during his playing days. With his second wife Joni, whom he married in 1990, he splits his time now between his home here and his apartment in Juno Beach, Fla. His two daughters are grown up and married -- Jamie lives in Foxboro, Mass., Kelly lives in Ruxton -- and much of his free time now is devoted to one of the grand passions of his life: golf.

He plays to a two-handicap. People tell him he's good enough to qualify for the professional seniors tour. But Jim Palmer doesn't even play in old-timers games for the Orioles -- see, this would make him officially old. So the idea that he'd go on tour with a lot of pot-bellied geezers in green pants like Raymond Floyd and Billy Casper seems equally far-fetched.

"I don't want to play on the Seniors tour," Jim Palmer says. "But I'd like to play some serious amateur golf."

Then he begins describing, in minute detail, the hole-in-one he got a week earlier in Florida playing with his old Oriole roommate, Davey Leonhard.

This was Jim Palmer's second hole-in-one. The last one was a few years ago when he played with Jeb Bush, son of President George Bush, and there were some Secret Service agents tagging along packing Uzis, which does not do much for your concentration.

For this one, 185 yards or so, he hits "a nice little 6-iron, with a two-yard draw, and it hits two feet to the right of the pin." The ball starts rolling and seconds later Davey Leonhard is whooping, "Dammit, Jim, that's in the hole!"

But judging from Jim Palmer's reaction, you'd think he just finished hosing down the driveway.

"He just acted like it was kind of routine," Davey Leonhard recalled, which didn't strike him as odd at all. "People don't understand it, but he's probably one of the greatest athletes of his generation. He pitched in the World Series, the All-Star Game, he beat Sandy Koufax at the age of 20, he plays tennis left-handed, he's a good basketball player, ping-pong, a two- or three-handicap in golf. Whatever he wants to do, he can do better than anyone, you know?

"Without a doubt, he could be a scratch or under golfer. Except he's never satisfied. See, he never had to deal with failure like the rest of us."

Storybook career

To see Jim Palmer throw a baseball was to see the art of pitching elevated to its highest level.

He won 268 games and those three Cy Young Awards with the Orioles from 1965 to 1983. He won 20 or more games eight times in nine years with that symphony of a wind-up.

He pitched in five All-Star Games and six World Series at a time when life was so grand in the Baltimore clubhouse that the players would greet each other with cries of: "It's great to be young and an Oriole!"

It was a storybook career, all right. Except, as in all storybooks, there were a few times when the dragon knocked the knight off his horse.

For Jim Palmer, these included his celebrated run-ins with Earl Weaver, most centering on Palmer's contention that teammate Dave McNally was right: "The only thing Earl knows about pitching is that he couldn't hit it."

When Weaver retired as Oriole manager in 1982, Jim Palmer, candid as ever -- this is not the sort of man you'd send to Russia for talks on disarming missile silos -- told the press: "Will we miss him as a person? No, of course not, even though all the stuff he does breaks up a long season."

Now, though, Palmer says of his old nemesis: "I thought he was a hell of a manager. Could he have been nicer, could he have been more loving, could he have done what Sparky Anderson did when Frank Tanana won the last game of the '87 season, run out there and give him a big hug and a kiss? I told Sparky later I always wondered how I would have reacted if Earl had done that to me. But with Earl, it wasn't about being nice. It was about being the best manager with the most winning teams."

Then late in Jim Palmer's career, when he said his arm was hurting, teammates would often rip him, saying he wanted out of games in tough situations, a charge he vehemently denied.

"I always thought, because of the standards I was able to set, that people expected perfection out of me," he says.

The controversies did not always sit well with the fans. During a celebrated salary dispute with the Orioles in the mid-'70s, Baltimore magazine ran one of those goofy polls asking readers who they most wanted their sons to grow up to be like. The easy winner was Brooks Robinson.

As for who the readers least wanted their sons to grow up to be like, well, there was an easy winner there too. It was Jim Palmer.

Still, most of the rough times were forgotten on a rainy August afternoon in 1990, when Jim Palmer was officially inducted into baseball's Valhalla -- the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. N.Y.

He made with 92.6 per cent of the vote, the second-highest percentage ever for a pitcher (surpassed only by Bob Feller.)

But now, sitting in the bright sunshine of Timonium during another break in the Money Store shoot, Jim Palmer wants you to know something.

Other ballplayers might get that Hall of Fame ring and spend the rest of their lives doing nothing more mentally stimulating than yukking it up with high-rollers at benefit golf tournaments and elbowing their way into the buffet line.

But there was never any danger of this happening to him.

"It's kind of like acting," he says of his Hall of Fame induction. "You get an Oscar, and that's wonderful. But that was for your last movie."

This leads to a free-wheeling, stream-of-consciousness riff which, if you're looking for a theme, could be called "Jim Palmer: Gutsy Risk-taker or Dewey-eyed Dreamer?" For 20 minutes, he touches on a variety of subjects from his managing aspirations to his shaky start as play-by-play man on Oriole telecasts a few years ago to his aborted comeback bid in 1991, when he would have been the first Hall of Famer to return as a player.

It's Jim Palmer on the analyst's couch again, an overtime session. Suddenly he grasps his throat. A look of concern crosses his face.

"Can we finish this up tomorrow?" he says. "I'm starting to lose my voice."

That would not be good; The Money Store shoot has three hours to go.

The great ones always know how to pace themselves.

Chez Palmer

To get to Jim Palmer's house north of Baltimore, on the edge of the Greenspring Valley, you first pass through a security gate, where the guard eyes you like you're a fly walking across his cheeseburger.

As you pull into the Palmer's driveway, Joni Palmer comes out to greet you. She seems friendly and open, but wired with the same undercurrent of restless energy as her husband.

"You've got to move your car," she says, explaining that a local charity is coming to pick up two beds. Plus the workmen are busy building an extension on the house, she's in the process of packing, they're leaving for Florida next week.

The two met at the Pikesville Giant in 1979. They've told the story a thousand times. Jim was married to his first wife, Susan, back then. He was food shopping by himself late after a game. Suddenly, this vivacious brunette comes up and asks him if he'll come to a dinner party she was having the next night for a friend who'd just gotten married.

"We met in the plums," Palmer recalls.

"I knew my friend was ga-ga over him," Joni says.

Jim Palmer told Joni he'd love to come to her party, only he had a slight scheduling problem, the problem being that he had to pitch for the Orioles the next night. Come after the game, Joni said, and he did, neither one dreaming that 11 years later, they'd be husband and wife.

Anyway, that was then. This is what living with Jim Palmer is like now: He's a neat freak. To the degree that it would drive you nuts.

If he uses a glass, he rinses it out right away. If you use a glass, he rinses it out right away. If someone in your family uses a glass you get the idea.

"He's the type of guy," says Davey Leonhard, "who gets in my car and runs his finger on the inside of my windshield and says: 'Look at this!' He can't believe I don't have a Windex bottle in my car."

Although you wonder when he has time to clean anything. Halfway through the interview, Joni Palmer shows you Jim's schedule book, which looks like something you'd find on President Clinton's desk, only the prez probably isn't quite as busy.

The months of October and November are completely blocked out. This is when you suggest to Joni Palmer, as gently as possible, that her husband just may be, well, a Type A-ish personality.

Hearing this, she shrieks with delight.

"Oh, he's a Type AAAAA!" she says. "I've never met anyone like him!"

Then she tells you what it's like to drive to Florida with this guy when they decide to eat breakfast at one of those Waffle Houses that line the highway:

"Well, they're always next to a gas station. So what happens is, he drops me off at the Waffle House while he goes and fills the car with gas. I make the order for both of us, he finishes up, pays for the gas, walks in just in time to shovel the food down. We eat the food, pay the check, walk out the door, get in the car.

"And that's how our whole life is! Everything is OK, he's gonna work out this morning, then he's gonna hit some golf balls and when he comes back, he's gonna play tennis with this one and then he's gonna wash the windows and clean this and it's always scheduled.

"His motto is carpe diem. It's Latin for "Seize the day."

Apparently this obsession with making the best use of his time is nothing new. Max Palmer, 87, who lives in Laguna Beach, Calif., recalls what his adopted son Jim was like back in high school in Scottsdale, Ariz.

"On Sunday night, before he went to bed, he'd put five slices of white bread out, line em up across the table, put a slice of bologna on each one, then put another slice of bread on top of each one.

"Then he'd put each one in a separate sandwich bag. And that was his lunch for the week."

Anyway, as the years go on, Jim Palmer is not exactly slowing down.

This summer, for his 50th birthday present, Joni Palmer convinced her husband that they should go on a cruise of the Mediterranean.

Things were going along swell until they'd been on board, oh, 24 hours, which is when it became apparent Jim Palmer was beginning to go nuts.

How much shuffleboard can a guy play, how many of those little fruit drinks with the tiny parasols can you sip, before the world starts closing in around you?

There wasn't even a bottle of Windex around to wipe down all the portholes.

Anyway, at dinner on the third night, the ship's crew presented a crystal gift to an older couple, veteran cruise-goers, to commemorate their 300th day at sea.

Everyone applauded politely. Then, seizing the moment, Jim Palmer shot his hand in the air and asked: "What do you get if you've spent three days on a cruise and it feels like 300?'

The line got a big laugh, only he wasn't kidding. This is not the sort of guy who watches life pass by from a deck chair with a blanket around his shoulders.

It's one thing to be 50 years old. You don't have to be a fanatic about it.

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