What do you think?” asked Jim Palmer, throwing some pitches from the mound at the University of Miami. “I guess you’re all right.” replied Lazaro “Laser” Collazo, the university’s bright young assistant pitching coach.
“What do you really think?” pressed Palmer.
“Well.” said Collazo, screwing up his courage, “for a guy that’s going to the Hall of Fame, you have terrible mechanics.”
“Laser,” Palmer shot back, “I am in the Hall of Fame.” a fact that only underscores the audacity of his latest quest: A three-time winner of the Cy Young Award. Palmer, 45—that’s forty-five, as in two-score-and-five. or more than the combined ages of any two New Kids on the Block—wants to make a baseball comeback. The former Baltimore Oriole great, who more recently has made his living in broadcasting—for ABC and LSPN—and in briefs—in that famous Jockey ad campaign—is alive and throwing in Florida, hoping to be signed before baseball blooms in the spring. It’s as if Liz Taylor suddenly decided to audition for a soap opera—as an ingenue.
Let the scoffers scoff; Palmer is making a bold run at his field of dreams. “My mechanics were bad.” he admits. “As you get older, you lose some arm speed. So you have to make changes.” Under the tutelage of the 26-year-old Collazo, the aging right-hander, who lives in Baltimore but spends some of the winter in Key Biscayne, Fla., has learned to get more of his body into his pitches. He likes the challenge, and he has the support of his wife of 10 months, Joni, 41, a photographer. “She thinks it’s wonderful,” he says.
“He’s amazing,” says Miami baseball Coach Ron Fraser, a longtime friend who invited Palmer to work out at the college. “Everybody wants to make a comeback. but he’s different. He’s a very, very intelligent athlete. Plus, he has one thing these young kids don’t have: He’s been there.”
He has indeed. From 1965 to 1984, Palmer won 20 games eight times and led the Orioles into six World Series. A ferocious competitor who engaged in storied wrangles with manager Earl Weaver, Palmer challenged hitters with a live fastball thrown high and tight across the letters. To the great relief of batters, it was thrown with pinpoint control.
Palmer’s winning combination of competitiveness and control may have been learned early. When Jim was 9, his adoptive father died, and he and his sister (also adopted) moved with their mother from New York City to the Los Angeles area, where she married Hollywood character actor Max Palmer. Four years later they moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., where the schoolboy athlete won all-state honors in baseball, football and basketball.
Drafted after high school by the Orioles, Palmer began to build his legend when he pitched a four-hit shutout in the second game of the 1966 World Series. In his 19 seasons, the 6’3″ Oriole stopper won 268 games and lost 152, compiling the ninth-best winning percentage in baseball history.
As his Jockey ads attest, he has taken good care of his body. (Sportswriter Thomas Boswell once observed wryly, “Some ballplayers snort coke; Palmer won’t even drink one.”) But injuries to his knees in 1984 led to the prospect of his being released. Palmer didn’t want to leave Baltimore and his two daughters. Jamie, now 24, and Kelly, 21, who shuttled between his and first wife Susie’s neighboring homes. So he decided to retire. “ABC-TV offered me a four-year contract as a broadcaster,” says Palmer. “I had a PBS special [on sports personalities], and I was still working for Jockey. So I had plenty of things to keep me busy.”
Palmer is widely praised as a broadcaster, but difficulty over his ESPN contract—he had expected an increase from the $5,000 a game he earned last year but was offered only $4,000 by the cable network—first led him to consider a return to the mound. But cash, he says, wasn’t the biggest factor. It was a desire for the sort of job commitment he has found only in baseball. “It’s given me a glimpse of the old Jim Palmer, the one who has to get up in the morning and think about what he has to do that day.” he says.
Palmer would be especially happy to roost once more with the Orioles, one of four teams still scouting him last week. “I wouldn’t say it’s an impossible dream.” says Baltimore President Larry Lucchino. “Jim Palmer is an extraordinary athlete.”
Nobody is going to hire an illustrious retread on the basis of his résumé. But according to Laser Collazo, Palmer can still bring it in at 86 mph and throw the curve for a strike on three-and-two. “I’m going to get a job because of what I can do now.” says Palmer. “There are a lot of people pulling for me—including myself.”
William Plummer, Don Sider in Miami