In 1993, Jim Palmer was, as he has been for the past three-plus decades, an Orioles broadcaster. That year, Peter Angelos and a group of investors purchased the Orioles for a record $173 million, and a new career path opened.
In early August, by Palmer's recollection, with the Orioles 11 games above .500 under third-year manager Johnny Oates, David Bernstein reached out to Palmer, his neighbor. The Duty Free International chairman and member of Angelos' ownership group told Palmer that Angelos wanted to meet him at Boccaccio, the Little Italy restaurant.
They went to lunch, and Angelos started grousing about Oates. He wanted to know why Palmer seemed to know what was going on while Oates did not.
"He says, 'I'm really not that fond of this Johnny Oates guy,'" Palmer recalled during an interview Wednesday on the "Baseball Tonight with Buster Olney" podcast, during which he promoted "Nine Innings to Success: A Hall of Famer's Approach to Achieving Excellence," his new book. "And I said, 'Well, why is that?' And he said, 'Well, you know, he's not very good with the press.'" This was a time before the Washington Nationals, when the region was the Orioles' to own.
Palmer told Angelos: "Peter, we've got to think about a couple of things before you make a managerial change." First, the Orioles were a winning ballclub. They had won 89 games the previous year. Oates also had learned from Cal Ripken Sr., which to Palmer meant he knew "everything about the game."
"I said, 'If you're going to fire him, who are you going to get that's better?' " Palmer said. "And he said, 'Well, I never thought of that.' And I said, 'Well, you ought to think about that.' " He recommended Oates get help from a media consultant.
The next day, Bernstein called Palmer again. "He says, 'Do you want to manage? Do you want to be the GM?'" recounted Palmer, who wanted to be neither. "I basically said, 'Listen, I love the Orioles. If you're broadcasting for the Orioles when they win, people think I'm a much better broadcaster than under normal circumstances.'"
The Orioles finished 85-77, third in the division, and Oates was honored as the Sporting News Manager of the Year in the American League. But Angelos' inquiries continued throughout the decade.
After the Orioles fired Oates' successor, Phil Regan, after one season in 1995, Palmer said Angelos asked him about his interest in the vacancy. "I again politely declined," he wrote in "Nine Innings to Success." He told Olney he heard from Angelos in 1998, when Ray Miller became manager, and then again in 2000, when Mike Hargrove became the fifth person to take the position in 10 years.
"And I used to always tell him that there were guys that paid their dues," Palmer said on the podcast.
The move would have been by no means out of step for the era. In 1997, the Houston Astros named Larry Dierker, the club's longtime radio and TV color man, their new manager. Like Palmer, he had no previous managerial experience. Dierker resigned in 2001, with a 435-348 record and four postseason appearances in five seasons.
In 2000, Bob Brenly, a TV analyst for the Arizona Diamondbacks for the prior three years, was hired as the club's skipper. (Coincidentally, he replaced current Orioles manager Buck Showalter.) The Diamondbacks won the 2001 World Series in his first season, then fired him after his fourth, after two straight years out of the playoffs.
"It used to be that managers could get away with miserable dictators. Not anymore," Palmer wrote in his book. "The balance of power has shifted completely to the players, who hold the fate of managers in their hands. If a team underachieves, a manager loses his job. It's much easier to fire a manager than to fire 25 players. So if I'm ever asked again if I'd consider managing the team, the answer will still be no."
It's a shame that, days after Jennie Finch became the first woman to manage a men's team in professional baseball, Palmer won't let us entertain the ramifications of becoming maybe the first former underwear model to helm a club.
Oh, well. It will probably happen one day — the boxer-briefs-spokesman turned manager, that is. As for Palmer, why mess up a good thing?