Will the Real Jim Palmer Please Stand Up
The Baltimore Orioles are back in the playoffs and that’s a good thing because once upon a time they were the game’s model organization. From the end of the ’60s through the early ’80s, they personified excellence, led by manager Earl Weaver and Hall of Fame pitcher Jim Palmer, a priceless odd couple. Tom Boswell, one of the great baseball chroniclers of that or any other time, covered the Orioles in the ’70s and ’80s. Sometimes I think that he is neglected—lost somewhere between Roger Angell and Bill James—but as this 1983 takeout piece on Palmer suggests, he was a terrific writer and reporter. Originally published in the May 1983 issue of Playboy and reprinted here with the author’s permission, dig in and enjoy.
In the Jockey ad, half of Jim Palmer's princely, brooding face is fully lighted, the other half is masked in shadow. This chiaroscuro portrait, intended only to sell underwear, comes alarmingly close to capturing the man. Or rather, it hints at how elusive a clear view of the dichotomous Palmer can be.
Ever since he pitched a shutout in the World Series 17 years ago, at the age of 20, beating Sandy Koufax in Koufax's final game, Palmer has been as glamorous, as bright, as gifted and as public a figure as baseball has had to offer. Yet today Palmer forlornly describes himself as so “completely misunderstood” that he has given up hope of ever being appreciated rightly. His teammates go further, doubting whether anybody fathoms the consistently contradictory Palmer—least of all Palmer. In one breath his fellow Baltimore Orioles call him a true Hall of Famer; then, in the next, denigrate him as a hypochondriac, borderline paranoiac, prima donna, and even quitter.
Outside the clubhouse, the inner circle of baseball, Palmer is regarded as one of the dozen best pitchers in the history of the game. Even his remarkable resurrection, in 1982—a 15-5 record, 11 victories in a row, runner-up in the American League's Cy Young voting—seemed just another step in his inevitable stroll to Cooperstown. After all, he is fifth in history in 20-win seasons (eight) and Earned Run Average (2.79); he owns three Cy Young awards and the best winning percentage of any active pitcher (.651).
To the public eye, Palmer is an American ideal made manifest: a certified major league master who is as well a sensationally handsome and successful ABC sportscaster, male model, and national sex symbol. This Palmer stands for elegance and sophistication: the embodiment of natural gifts, both athletic and personal. He stands, in short, for perfection.
Strange as it may seem in an age of manufactured images and cynical opportunists, all the buttery praise for Palmer is basically deserved. His courtesy and common touch are rare and genuine. He gives his time—some would even say squanders it—on charities both famous and obscure. As though this weren’t enough, Palmer is a doting father to his two teenage daughters and a man of principles so lofty as to seem anachronistic. He’s never gone free agent and consequently plays for a salary that is half that of players who’ve had half his career. He’s scrupulously clean-living. Some ballplayers snort coke; Palmer won't even drink one. Unpretentious in his clothes, car and home, honest to a fault, fanatically punctual and responsible, Palmer is old fashioned and moral.
At thirty-seven, Palmer should be basking in the glow of a brilliant career, taking the sweet, lingering bows to which an athlete is entitled as he faces the curtain of age. But always, for Palmer, with the spotlight have come the shadows. Instead of savoring those final bows, he says, “I’m tired of opening letters that say, ‘Go to hell, Palmer.’” Instead he faces fans and teammates every day who feel ambivalent toward him, respecting his talent and labors yet often disliking, even disdaining him; to some Orioles, he’s an acquired distaste. Over the past several years, there has been more sniping at Palmer than at all other Orioles combined. The recurrent criticism from players like Rick Dempsey, Doug DeCinces, Mark Belanger and Ken Singleton is that Palmer has great gifts but is often hors de combat at the first sign of pain or pique. “Palmer has earned the right to be a hero here,” Orioles general manager Hank Peters once said. “It’s a shame he isn’t one. He’s badly damaged his reputation in this community.” In Memorial Stadium, where catcalls are rare, the players most often booed are Reggie Jackson, who defected to New York, and Palmer, who’s won 263 games for Bal’mer.
The sudden shifting of light and shadow in Palmer’s life was never more apparent than on the morning of the last game of 1982. Baltimore—the town that booed him and team that doubted him—needed Palmer more than at any time in the club's history. The Orioles had won thirty-three of forty-three games, to tie Milwaukee for first place on the season’s next-to-last day. Before that final game, the Birds suggested that Palmer take a cortisone shot in his shoulder, which, that week, had become sore. With a pennant, a season, at stake, many pitchers would have taken the shot unhesitatingly. Palmer balked. “I’d never taken a shot the day of a game, although I’d taken them the day before. I didn’t want to take that chance.”
The Orioles didn’t press, partly because they’ve come to believe that pregame excuses are essential to Palmer. As Al Bumbry puts it, “When Jimmy’s got his alibis all lined up, he’s tough to beat.”
This time, Palmer lost.
He was stunned, partly by the 10-2 defeat, but also by a fifteen-minute standing ovation after the game, which left Palmer and many others in tears. That same night, just hours after the most disheartening loss of his career—and the most precious ovation—Palmer flew three thousand miles to Los Angeles so he could see his orthopedic specialist the next morning.
Diagnosis: nothing wrong.
Is this neurosis, narcissism, or the farsighted wisdom that allows a fellow to win three hundred games? If, upon examining the Palmer conundrum, the answer occurs to you, call (301) 243-9800. That’s the Orioles switchboard. They’ve wanted to know for nineteen years.
Jim Palmer, as it happens, is one great unresolved dialectic in which every thesis is coupled with a ready-to-hand antithesis—with not a synthesis in sight. Any list of his conspicuous qualities turns out to be a recitation of opposites. Palmer’s inability to reach a synthesis in almost any area of his life is what makes him exasperating. This is a guy who has gotten on a few nerves. Within the baseball world, the glossy view of Palmer—his public image—is seen as a sort of strange joke. To his peers, he’s an all-star eccentric who is pitied or clucked over protectively as often as he is envied. Yet, in the long run, it is Palmer’s determined complexity, his refusal to embrace shabby compromises and blunted principles, that gives him dimension.
At times, Palmer seems mellow. During the season, he regularly takes a dugout seat where he can work on his tan. In warmups, he lopes where others run. In or out of uniform his motion is languid, his voice relaxed and mellifluous, his movements deliberate, confident.
“I'm easygoing,” he says, sitting in the spotless, stylish living room of his suburban Baltimore home. If Gentleman's Quarterly comes by for a photo spread, Palmer won’t have to put a single sock in a hamper. The house, like every obvious manifestation of Palmer, is ready for a full-dress inspection. Asked to describe how Palmer played golf, his longtime manager, friend, and nemesis, Earl Weaver, said, “How do you think? Like he does everything else: perfectly.” If Palmer seems easygoing, it may be because that’s how a “perfect” person should appear. In fact, he’s completely manic, known, among other things, for mowing his lawn at 6 a.m. “I’m really hyper,” the “easygoing” Palmer says sheepishly.
A lazy off-season afternoon in Palmer’s house is like being trapped in a Rube Goldberg cartoon. In three hours, the phone rings nearly twenty times. Each time, Palmer answers it before the second ring so his message machine can’t take control. Every call delights him. He’s polite and amusing, inventing comic voices to deceive friends. He confirms appointments, makes appointments, critiques past appointments. (“It was supposed to be terrific. You wouldn’t have had me if you didn’t think it would be terrific.”) The front door stays unlocked, because Palmer is in heaven when, while talking on the phone to one person and being interviewed by another, he can lean around the corner and welcome somebody new into the house.
First, Palmer's girlfriend of long standing, Paula, drops by. She's a businesswoman, smart and not particularly deferential toward him.
“How’d you like the Mozart I left?” she asks.
“Not much,” says Palmer.
“Great taste,” she says.
She's slim, blond and healthy-beautiful, but makes no attempt to be flashy. She wears jeans and knee boots--the rubber kind you wear to work in the yard.
“Just write good stuff about my pal,” she says.
“That’ll be the day,” says Palmer.
Next to appear are his pretty, teenage daughters, whom he calls the apples of his eye. Kelly, thirteen, plops herself in his lap, and Jamie, sixteen, makes a split-second decision to join her father on his trip to California the next week. The girls will be back later for dinner, which Palmer can’t wait to cook. That, like gardening, is among his ardent hobbies.
Although he is a believer in the close-knit, old-fashioned family, Palmer got married at eighteen, and, in what is surely the most easily comprehensible of broken marriages, found that he and his wife grew apart. Talk of a divorce has gone on for years, but nothing has ever been settled. So, wanting to give his daughters love while still allowing both himself and his wife some freedom, he has bought a house on the other side of the hill from theirs. An unusual, but decent, arrangement.
“My wife and I have been married for nineteen years,” says Palmer, mulling the stress-fracture in his family life. “It got to a point where neither of us could be our own person. But many of those nineteen years were very happy ones. I don’t really see it as a failure ...
“The kids know that they're loved ... my wife did an excellent job of preparing them so they’d look at me as their father and not a celebrity, the way other people do. They know there isn’t anything in the world I wouldn’t do for them. My job allows me to have two houses, so they all live right over the hill.
“My wife and I never argue ... but there’s been anguish. I had to go back there, to the other house, at the beginning of the year, for legal reasons. Talk about psychosomatic injuries. The minute I got back out of there my neck stopped hurting. I was relaxed again," says Palmer, his white poodle, Holly, curled up at his feet, soft jazz on the stereo. “My wife says the separation is not my fault, it’s hers. She doesn’t feel good about being Mrs. Jim Palmer. ‘Oh, glad to meet you. You’re Mrs. Jim Palmer’ ... people in their thirties sometimes want to change the course of the ship. I guess she’s in that now. I hope to do it in my forties.”
The all-afternoon open house continues with the entrance of a striking blond neighbor who just happens to be wearing her ankle-length silver mink. When women go to Palmer’s house for a cup of sugar, they don’t wear their hair in curlers. The man’s life is one long female audition. Mostly, they must settle for a smile. “I don’t date that much," Palmer say. "It’s work. I have to make a great effort as far as straightening people out about their preconceived ideas about me.”
Palmer’s need for a kaleidoscopic environment is so ingrained that, as he talks, he changes position in his chair as exotically as a little boy, at one point even getting his feet above his head. Every few minutes he switches the music coming from the tape deck. “I never watch television,” he says, then corrects himself: “Well, sometimes Carson’s monologue.” That's about as long as he likes to sit still. Nevertheless, Palmer is one ballplayer occasionally seen in the company of long, heavy novels. They feed the mind, to be sure, but also help him get through the interminable hours he spends on planes. Once, seeing Palmer reading Dr. Zhivago, teammate Steve Stone said, “It must be about an elbow specialist.”
Partly because he can’t stay put, Palmer is among the best conditioned of major leaguers. In a day, he’ll play basketball and racquetball, lift weights and run, then throw. And that’s in January. “He has the best twenty-year-old body in baseball,” says Weaver. “When rookies ask what to do in spring training, I say, ‘Follow Palmer.’ Not one has ever kept up with him.”
Just as Palmer, taken in sixty-second doses, seems relaxed, so, measured over hours, he seems in need of a sedative. “My wife always said to me, ‘You fit everything in,’” says Palmer, “meaning I was fitting her and the children in around a lot of other things. But I’d say to her, ‘Yes, but I fit everything in.’ Meaning, I did get around to all of it.”
Not surprisingly, this laid-back ball of nerves is also both intensely rational and explosively emotional. On the one hand Palmer is the man with a passion for logic. That may be his greatest strength as a pitcher. “Nobody's got as many theories as Jim. He’ll use a whole game just to prove he’s right,” says fellow Oriole hurler Mike Flanagan. “One year he was convinced we’d thrown too many curves in spring training. So, on opening day, he threw 120 fastballs out of 124 pitches to beat the White Sox. Another time, Earl was on one of his kicks about starting hitters off with breaking balls. Jimmy told us, ‘Forget Earl. He knows baseball, but all he knows about pitching is that he couldn’t hit it. He gives the hitters too much credit. The key is to get ahead with a first-pitch fastball for a strike.’ So Palmer started all thirty-three hitters that game with fastballs, thirty-two for strikes,” recalls Flanagan.
“It's amazing how predictable he is, but the hitters can’t do anything. Every batter, it’s a fastball for a strike or pop-up, then a change-up for a ground out. We look at each other and say, ‘Don’t they know?’”
“Jim calls his change a BP [batting practice] fastball,” Flanagan says, “but it’s really a helluva screwball. We never tell him, ‘Great screwball,’ though, because then his elbow would hurt.
“When Palmer is on a roll, the innings go so fast they’re a blur—always ahead, no trouble, minimum of pitches, always working around the good hitters. We can call every pitch he throws. Maybe once a game he crosses us up. When he gets back to the dugout he’ll tell us why before we can ask. Usually it’s ’cause he’s thinking three batters ahead.”
After years of studying Palmer in action, coach Ray Miller simply calls the six-foot-three, 194-pound right-hander the game’s best situation pitcher.
“You must accept that you’ll give up runs,” explains Palmer. “The pitcher who gives up runs one at a time wins, while the pitcher who gives them up two, three and four at a time loses. I’ve given up long home runs that I turned around and admired like a fan. But the ones I admired were all solos.”
With the bases loaded, the ultimately rational Palmer always throws every pitch at a corner—even with three balls on the batter. In his career, he’s walked home many runs, but in more than thirty-eight hundred innings, Palmer has never given up a grand slam. Not one.
This level-headed man of logic, however, is also a creature of moods and funks. Once, he walked off the mound in the eighth inning of a tie game after right hander Pat Kelly dropped a flyball, prompting a furious Belanger to say, “Palmer has always begged off under pressure.” Palmer hardly makes friends when he calls his outfield “our Bermuda Triangle” or when he stares at offending defenders; when he flies his glove off dugout walls and hrumpfs between innings or when he asks an umpire for a new ball seven straight times, knowing an umpire carries only six in his pouch; or, finally, when he repositions his fielders between pitches. (“I have to move my outfielders ten steps to the right,” Weaver once said, “so that after Palmer moves them back five steps to the left, they’ll end up in the right place.”)
Yet Palmer can't forget any slight ever done to him. His memory is encyclopedic—a curse for a man who feels persecuted. Palmer can remember sequences of pitches from games fifteen years ago; ask him, out of the blue, how long reliever Don Stanhouse has been married and he says, “October 27, 1981.” Unfortunately, Palmer also recalls that “in 1966 I was 15-10 and got fifteen thousand dollars the next year, while Jim Lonborg [of Boston] was 10-17 and got twenty-two thousand dollars.” He can’t help it. “I just can’t forget any of that stuff,” he says. “I’m very logical but also very emotional.” He says it as if they went hand in hand.
To appreciate the Palmer paradox, it's important to understand that Palmer’s childhood and young adulthood were dichotomous. He was adopted at the age of one week, yet grew up with a silver spoon in his mouth. He says he has never wanted to know who his natural parents were. His father, Moe, a dress manufacturer, was Jewish; his mother, Polly, was Catholic. Growing up, his name was Jim Wiesen. The family lived on Park Avenue and in Rye, New York, summered on Lake George and had servants in the home. Then, one morning, the boy noticed that lots of cars had pulled up in the family driveway. His father had died of a heart attack in the night. Jim was nine years old.
His mother moved Jim and his sister, also adopted, three thousand miles to California. The family’s style of life went from upper to middle class. Polly Wiesen eventually remarried, to Max Palmer, a Hollywood character actor in shows like Playhouse 90, Dragnet, and Highway Patrol, who also managed the bars at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita racetracks. Next the family moved to Scottsdale, Arizona. One of the first children Palmer met there was a girl named Susan. They dated through high school, then married after graduation. As Palmer was venturing through the minors in the early sixties, his sister became a child of the times, a hippie, and embarked on the first of six marriages. They seldom see each other anymore. “I always wondered how two people so different came from the same environment,” he's said.
No sooner did Palmer make his bombshell appearance in the majors at twenty, winning fifteen games and becoming the youngest man ever to pitch a World Series shutout, than his elbow blew out. He spent two lost and traumatic years in the minors, getting shelled in Miami and Rochester. Many thought his career was over. The Orioles scarred Palmer by insinuating that his problems were in his head. Palmer learned a bitter lesson early: “Your arm is all you are.”
Put that first twenty-one years of life in your David Copperfield pipe and smoke it. Palmer’s view is that it was basically idyllic: loving parents, no wants, lived on the lower acreage of the Jimmy Cagney estate across the street from Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh in Beverly Hills. What’s the big deal? Next subject.
With this as background, perhaps it is easier intuitively, though probably not clinically, to sense how one man can be so many things—and also their opposites.
For instance, this putative prima donna whom baseball colleagues swear is often selfish and immature, is notably charitable and responsible. His one stipulation before okaying a poster of his Jockey ad, for example, was that all proceeds go to cystic fibrosis. Well known for his inability to say no to worthy causes, Palmer has always been a whirlwind of good works. One day during the off-season he offered himself as a luncheon partner to anybody who would donate a hundred dollars to the Baltimore Symphony. The next day, he spent the morning at Memorial Stadium pouring cokes at an Oriole party for a hundred poor children. That night, Palmer was a “celebrity bartender”—again for charity. (“They didn’t know what they were getting into,” he says. “I’d never mixed a drink in my life. If it wasn’t white wine or draft beer, they were in trouble.”) The following day, at the request of his estranged wife, Palmer spent ninety minutes playing tennis with people he’d never seen before in order to raise nine hundred dollars for another charity.
And all this was during Christmas week.
Palmer turned out to be so dependable in his public appearances that Jockey was shocked. “You tell Palmer when and where to be, and he’s there. That’s one reason we made him the company’s spokesman,” says a Jockey official. “We’ve had to do amazing things to get players—even Pete Rose—where they were supposed to be. Sometimes a limousine isn’t enough. You need somebody to wake the guy, get him dressed and in the limousine.”
At his dozens of Jockey shows, often on mornings after he’s pitched, Palmer signs his name a thousand times without missing a smile. Sometimes when a woman asks him to sign her briefs, it turns out she’s still wearing them. On a hot day in Milwaukee once, Palmer quietly asked the assembled admirers, “Mind if I take off my jacket?” Soon a thousand women were shouting, “Take it off!”
“I go out for Jockey, and people—guys in sales and vice-presidents--they’re amazed at how I can get along with people,” Palmer says. “Well, my politeness definitely comes from my parents. My mother was one of six kids and her father died when he was forty. She went to New York and got a job in a small dress shop and put her brother through Juilliard…When she met my father, it wasn’t like she didn’t know the value of a dollar…She would give her last dime to anybody who asked for it. She was certainly aware of how other people live, because she’d gone through it…
“What’s life all about,” he says, “except using your experiences to figure out how you want to conduct yourself? I’ve seen too many ballplayers go to dinners where they’re getting fifteen hundred dollars or two thousand dollars and not want to sign autographs. I mean, why are you there?”
There are those, however, who don’t equate sangfroid and good manners with maturity.
“Many people grow up late,” says Weaver. “But Palmer still hasn’t grown up ... [pause] ... but he’s getting closer.
“Jim has a hard time making difficult decisions. For instance, is his divorce final? No? I didn’t think so. It’s been up in the air for years. He hasn’t faced that,” says Weaver. “He’s still got his security blankets. He hasn’t let go of any of them, has he? Once he stands in front of that judge and hears him say what the alimony is and what the child support is and how much he can see his own children ... when he starts facing things like that, he’ll start finding out what it means to be an adult.”
True to form, Palmer is ambivalent about Weaver, with whom he does commercials and TV commentary. “It was great to see Earl humble. He was in awe of the pros,” crows Palmer, looking back on their TV work during the playoffs last October. “He even told me I did a good job. That’s when I knew he was nervous.”
Palmer compares their Odd Couple relationship to “a marriage where each partner knows exactly what to say to make the other one mad.” Certainly Weaver has been the burr under Palmer’s saddle for almost his entire career. It’s a considerable compliment to both men that they could sincerely like, and sincerely dislike, each other—yet coexist. In a strange sense, it was a model for human relationships. To be sure, opposites attract. But there were also many times when either Palmer or Weaver could have written the other off as an incorrigible pain in the ass. Yet each saw in the other a winner who possessed native intelligence. Such foils could not willingly part.
“The only thing I ever asked from Earl,” Palmer says, “was that he treat me the way I would have treated him—that he just be fair and polite and compassionate. Of course, that’s just not Earl. That doesn’t mean I would rather have had Earl be compassionate and thoughtful than be a winner.
“With Earl, enough is never enough. He has never been satisfied with my performance, not in my best year. It goes back to that series of great expectations, the Jim Palmer syndrome. The years after I went 16-4 (in ’69), he had me winning thirty games before I had ever won twenty. And when I’ve been hurt, they’ve never been able to accept it. I don’t think I’m a hypochondriac. It’s always been the same: Tim Stoddard has a sore arm and they believe him. Jim Palmer has a sore arm and it’s in his head.
“I was a baby when I came up here and Earl made it very difficult, listening to him complain about everything. Lee May used to make a joke out of it. There’d be Earl—we’d have a man on third with one out in an early inning and a guy would pop up, and you know Earl, he’d have his head between his knees, going, ‘Bbbrrrrrr.’ He’s sure we’ve blown the game; he’s seen his omen. Lee would say, ‘Well, the Little Genius has given up again.’ And we’d laugh and go on and play our own game. And we’d win.
“I just think a lot of the ways that I acted, and the misunderstandings that came out of it, were caused by Earl Weaver. That sounds like a cop-out. But it’s true.”
One episode, out of dozens, gives the true Odd Couple flavor.
In ’81, Weaver was so incensed by Palmer’s five-year-old habit of missing starts with mysterious injuries, begging for relief help at the first sign of trouble and generally second guessing everybody, that, on the mound in Seattle, Weaver screamed at Palmer, “I’m sick of your crap. Come on, let’s fight.”
“I plan to scream at Palmer the rest of the season, ’cause that’s the only way I can get his attention,” Weaver announced. “But, knowing Palmer, it’ll go in one ear; and out the other. His problem is he won’t listen to anybody. When I want him, I’ll just send Ray Miller to drag him back by his diaper.”
Palmer retaliated with medical journals, supporting his new self-diagnoses: an injury “to the suprascapulous ... my career is probably over.”
This was old news to Weaver, the man who once said, “The Chinese tell time by ‘the Year of the Dragon,’ ‘the Year of the Horse.’ I tell time by ‘the Year of the Shoulder,’ ‘the Year of the Elbow,’ ‘the Year of the Ulnar Nerve.’”
That a man as fanatical as Palmer about good health should have spent his career performing the most unnatural act in sports—throwing a baseball—deserves a cosmic snicker. A pitcher’s life is one day of deliberate self-injury, followed by three days of healing, then a fresh injury. Ask a narcissistic perfectionist, who’s pretty sure he knows more about sports medicine than most doctors, to endure in this job, and the result is “the Year of the Ulnar Nerve.”
Finally, Weaver gave his true diagnosis of the slump Palmer suffered from ’79 until ’82—a period in which he was 34-26, with two dozen missed starts: “We’ve got to find out how much Palmer has left. He’s got to get rid of all this emotion he wastes on blaming other people for everything that goes wrong,” said Weaver. “He has to say, ‘That's my fault’ or ‘I can overcome that.’ Now he’s always pitying himself and taking himself out of games and asking for help.”
Pitching coach Miller added, “Palmer has reached the stage of his career where he has to bite the bullet. I don’t know if he’s ever really had to. Palmer can’t keep putting Earl on the spot with all his antics.”
In response, Palmer tried enough advice and remedies for a whole pitching staff. He changed sliders three times until he found one that didn’t hurt his elbow. He adopted Steve Carlton’s hand-in-a-bucket-of-sand exercises. He practiced the pregame meditation methods of Steve Stone. (Said Flanagan: “It’s a good thing for Jimmy that Stone didn’t stand on his head.”) Palmer also went on a small weight lifting program prescribed by one doctor and a general strengthening scheme devised by another. He consulted with specialists in Los Angeles, Boston and Baltimore.
The result: nothing.
By May 1982, Palmer had reached the lowest point in his career. His ERA was 7.44. His stock in the organization had bottomed out. “I think Palmer can win those sixty games he needs to reach three hundred,” said Weaver, “but I doubt if he can do it here. He needs something to completely shake him up.”
As a last resort, Palmer’s twin bêtes noires—Weaver and [general manager, Hank] Peters—decided on shock treatment. First Palmer was sent to the bullpen. Not for rest or rehabilitation, but indefinitely. “I got the word," says Palmer, “that Peters had said, ‘I don’t want Palmer to start another game here this year.’”
Contending that he was being used as a scapegoat, Palmer asked for a trade. To his amazement, he got an answer he’d never heard before: Great. Give us a list of teams you’d approve and we’ll work something out within two weeks.
Peters and Weaver had decided that, underneath everything, Palmer was utterly attached to Baltimore—both town and team. To their minds, he was like a child trying to test the limits of his family’s patience and affection. So they let the little boy run away from home; then they didn’t go look for him.
Within two days, Palmer decided he didn’t want to be traded, that he wanted to finish his career in Baltimore, because the dislocations of a trade would be to cruel for his family. Next he walked into Weaver’s office and, according to Weaver, said, as he often had in the seventies, “Earl, my arm feels good. I think I’ll win seven or eight in a row.”
“Palmer always keeps his word,” beamed Weaver, putting the right hander back in the rotation. This time, Palmer bettered his word. From that day, in late May, until September—from before Memorial Day until after Labor Day--Palmer went unbeaten, winning eleven in a row and equaling the longest streak of his career.
He wasn’t lucky. He was good. Often overpoweringly good. Once again he could throw his fastball for strikes with impunity—for six or seven innings at least. His combination of a rising fastball, that nasty new slider, a rainbow curve and two change-ups (one a screwball), gave him a paralyzing combination of pitches.
To Palmer, the coincidence of his bullpen exile and his return to form was galling. “I did all the work to get my fastball back, to rehabilitate my shoulder,” he says. “Of course, they think it’s in my head.”
“I think that sending him to the bullpen and agreeing to trade him was a kick in the rear end to him. It spurred his pride,” says Peters. “I think it was the catalyst.” But then, if a clear line of causality could be traced, we wouldn’t be talking about Palmer. This, after all, is the winner who’s been called a quitter. This is the hypochondriac who averaged 288 innings a season for nine consecutive years, the sex symbol who lives the clean life, the baseball paranoid who can’t forget, the responsible adolescent, the urbane sophisticate who is, in private, a Gordian knot of fascinating kinks.
Finally, this is a man who is trying to live up to his own personal conception of “the good,” both in his pitching and in his life. His charitable works, his attention to responsibilities, his forbearance with strangers, his concern for his children bear no evidence of being the machinations of a fellow with ulterior motives: an eye on politics, perhaps, or public favor.
At the risk of applying a word out of fashion, no enterprise is nobler than this striving after a life that will bear up under the strictest scrutiny—not just the scrutiny of celebrity, that is, but of our own internal eye. Palmer has tried to conduct an examined life, to arrive at his own precepts and live by them. That this hardest, and most universal, of tasks often leaves him at odds with himself—in apparent contradictions—isn’t surprising.
Palmer is, of course, just as tangled up, as human, as everybody else—and he knows it. Given his advantages, that’s not an easy insight. When Palmer pleads that he’s misunderstood, he means people don’t understand that despite his wealth-looks-talent-fame, he finds life just as troubling as anybody else. With him, it takes us a little longer to appreciate the shadows in a glittering life.
Surely some of the paradoxes in Palmer can be credited as virtues. Attempting to lead a decent and reasonably reflective life while trying to win three hundred baseball games along the way is full-time employment. Palmer takes some “bearing with,” and, like us all, has his weaker side. However, once we take the trouble to meet him whole, he draws us toward him with a human link we would not want to break.
“In the little things, Jim can get on your nerves,” says teammate Flanagan. “But the longer you know him, and the better you know him, the more you like him. He’s a really fine man.
“I talked to ‘Cakes’ on the phone one day,” Flanagan says, using Palmer’s nickname (short for the pancakes he eats before pitching), “and told him I was going to have a patio built. He said, ‘Don’t do that.’ Next thing I knew, he and Rich Dauer are out back pouring concrete and building my patio while I'm ‘supervising.’ I had the most expensive landscape gardner in America. That’s typical of Palmer. He just has to find something to do every minute. And nothing makes him happier than helping somebody else.”
But, of course, it could hardly be that simple. Palmer’s desire to be loved is large, his need for proofs of appreciation considerable. Those who neglect or mistrust him may be punished—indeed may deserve to be. “Fans are front-runners,” he says, for instance. ”I’ve won 250-some games and I get booed. They announce my name and a third of the people boo. I go out there and get booed. I win, and no cheers. That’s the way it is. I’m never going to be understood. But that’s all right. It really is.
“When I walked out after the final game last year, I just knew that fate dictates,” says Palmer. “Here you’ve got Don Sutton, who’s a good friend of mine. He leaves L.A., which I never could understand because his family lives there and it’s a nice place to play. He goes to Houston for a lot of money and he gets tired and doesn’t want to play down there because they never score any runs. So he goes to Milwaukee. And it’s Sutton and me in the last game. Here I am, played here for nineteen years, I’m the one who stayed. If there’s any justice in the world, we’d win.
“But life doesn’t work that way. It just doesn’t.
“The true fans are the ones who came out afterward—how wonderful ... The people were still there waiting after the game, and they were calling for us. Now, those are the real fans, those were the fans who came up to me when I was 7-8 and said, ‘We don’t care. We appreciate all the things you’ve done.’ Not that I’m somebody who lives in the past, but I do think that counts.
“It’s like Rudolf Nureyev. We saw him in Sleeping Beauty in Washington. People say he’s not what he used to be. Well, who gives a shit? He’s still good.”
“Yes,” says Jim Palmer.