IN A STRIKE ZONE OF HIS OWN

Oriole Jim Palmer sets records on the mound, but not all of his best deeds are done there. Off the field he maintains a low profile about his high-mindedness
July 25, 1976

The starting pitcher is a unique athlete. While specialists only lately have become common in sports, the starter has always been one, dating back to the time when such indefatigable buffaloes as old Hoss Radbourn and Cy Young pitched with the same regularity as Dave Cash now lines up at second base. But unlike all the other specialists, whose roles tend to be as brief as they are crucial, the starter literally holds the whole game in the palm of his hand. Even specialists like the hockey goalie or the football kicker can only respond to the action; they cannot initiate it.

Perhaps because so much depends on the starter, there is nothing in athletics that speaks so much of shame as that awful moment when the manager strides to the mound and asks for the ball; the sound of epaulets ripping can be heard all over the park. Relief pitchers fail too, but they are mere transients, on the mound only because someone else failed. It is the starter who is scored for failure, for incompleteness. And among all athletes, only starting pitchers are removed. Other players are substituted for, given a breather, sat down, replaced and so forth. Starters are removed. And when they are, tribal ritual demands that they trudge alone to the dugout. No wonder more and more of the species choose to sprint from the premises. "It's tough walking off that mound," says Jim Palmer of the Orioles. "That's why I've started to run off."

And once they are removed or beaten fairly in a pitcher's duel, there are too many days—three or four or five—to brood about what went wrong, to ponder another big L. Even Palmer, who is among the cr√®me de la cr√®me of starters, fell into a slump early this season (as did Tom Seaver of the Mets and Catfish Hunter of the Yankees, his peers among the elite) and during a month-long period had only one win. Between starts he began to talk about how things even out. It is possible that he believed what he said.

No matter how great a pitcher has been, it takes only a couple of bad starts to make him doubt himself. When a hitter slumps, he is "off"; he'll "break out of it." Pitchers who fall upon hard times are viewed more darkly. Have they "lost it"? Is their arm "gone"? Imagine lying awake wondering if your arm is gone.

At the height of his powers, Palmer normally labors every fourth day. Once his style was strictly fastball—overpowering. He still depends on it, but it is his precision more than his speed that marks him now. Most days he has good breaking stuff, too. He has a fluid righthand motion and his pitches tend to rise. Highball pitchers last longer, because to get the ball down requires more stress and follow-through.

In five of the last six seasons Palmer has won 20 games or more, and the year he didn't he was injured. Even with his shaky spring he is already 12-8 this season. He won 15 games and pitched a shutout in the World Series at the age of 20. He has won the Cy Young Award two of the past three years. Coming into this season, his career earned run average, 2.63, was the lowest in the history of the American League, and his winning percentage (.655) was the highest among all active pitchers. For these accomplishments, the Orioles last April signed Palmer to a three-year contract that calls for $180,000 this season, $185,000 next year and $190,000 in 1978. Many people, including his wife, wanted him to hold out for a salary matching Seaver's 230 grand, but Palmer figured the deal was good enough. "Maybe taking less is a defense mechanism," he says. "If they think you are greedy, there is more pressure on you."

As it is, Palmer feels obliged to give Baltimore 20 wins in return for what he is paid. He thinks that is a fair return. "The owners brought this on themselves," he says. "It started when they paid Richie Allen $135,000, then came back and gave him a huge raise when he hit 37 home runs. What did they expect for $135,000—10 home runs?"

Assuming he does not get injured and can keep up his pace for another few years. Palmer will be a cinch for the Hall of Fame. He is happily married, a father: he is handsome, well dressed, well spoken and respected for his contributions to society.

Clearly, he is not a typical superstar, but he provides an illustration of what a superstar is, what being a great athlete in Bicentennial America is like. At the peak of his career he was on world championship teams, but now he toils for an ordinary club, many of whose players are distracted by dreams of free agentry. Like most players, he does not work for a New York or Los Angeles team; though he is a product of the Golden West. Palmer is required to play in an unromantic old Eastern town. And yet, while he has no love for Baltimore, for its humidity and caustic fans, he feels a certain loyalty to the organization and to the city. He is neither a players' representative nor a company man. He is a natural athlete, who once seemed destroyed by an injury. He is only 30, but he has been in the majors since 1965, and he has seen much of the system and most of the players change. He wed his high school sweetheart as a teen-ager, but the marriage is solid and unthreatened. He still does not know what to make of fame and its demands. His escape is to the soil; he gardens, a rare hobby for an athlete.

Dave Leonhard, an ordinary pitcher who roomed with Palmer for six years, says, "Jim's not the kind of guy to write a story about. He's the kind of story they were writing 30 years ago when every athlete was portrayed as what you'd like your son to be. He's really a very insecure guy. I think it's only in the last two, three years that he's come to accept that he's great. But he's very nervous, can't sit still. Maybe that's why he gardens. What else is there for him to do? He doesn't gamble, doesn't drink, he doesn't chase women...and he doesn't sit still."

In sum, Palmer is a genuine, uncomplicated person. The only burden in his good, simple life is that of making $180,000 for being a baseball star. Maybe that is the way it is with all stars, but in the ensuing inner struggle, sometimes the person wins out and sometimes the ego does. Generally, the players who remain persons are assumed to be uninteresting, while those who become merely egos are considered colorful.

Boog Powell once said of Palmer, "If Jim was pitching in New York, he would be the greatest thing since bottled beer." As soon as Henry Aaron got up around 700 home runs, everybody began saying the same thing about him. Certainly, if players like Palmer and Aaron had worked the Big Apple they would be better known, and Palmer would no doubt have a line of men's sportswear named after him.

But the New York-Los Angeles business has been terribly overdone and accepted much too easily. Catfish Hunter obtained a lot of fame because of the unusual circumstances that enabled him to leave the A's for the Yankees, but he is no better known, no more well defined, in New York than he was in Oakland. His case is evidence that sports publicity is unique. The influential show-biz press resides in Manhattan and Hollywood, except on those rare occasions when it stirs for road trips to Vegas. Similarly, the major political media are all nailed down in Washington and New York, changing scenery only when Air Force One flies or, quadrennially, when they are privileged to discover America during the presidential primaries.

But athletes must play the road, and so the sporting press is diffuse. Johnny Bench was not dreamed up in New York. His notices from Cincinnati, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh forced New York to accept him. That is the way sports publicity works. Sure, it helps that a Joe Namath or a Seaver wears a New York team uniform, but it is certainly not imperative.

The way the system functions, the best thing an athlete can have is clear definition—Tom Terrific, Broadway Joe. Walt Frazier is the ultimate sports media figure. He has a nickname (Clyde), a knack for the quick, apt quote and a simple image: he likes clothes and girls. His teammates, Earl Monroe, for example, or Bill Bradley, may be a great deal more interesting but, precisely because they are not categorized, the press in the cities they visit does not have time for them as they pass through town. When the Baltimore Orioles reach Cleveland next time, who are all the local reporters going to clamor around, Reggie Jackson or Jim Palmer?

Like a number of superstars. Palmer is not easy to define, perhaps because he is anxious to wall off the private man from the public creature. This is a conscious decision, for he is hardly unable to express himself and he cannot pretend to be vague and forgetful. Indeed, his memory is incredible. He can reel off, pitch by pitch, whole innings from games played years ago. "One time about 15 of us were discussing an old game," says Brooks Robinson. "Everyone said it was this way. Palmer said it was another. We checked the scorebook, and he was right. Jim never forgets."

Nor is he afraid to speak his mind. When as a negotiating ploy Reggie Jackson delayed reporting to Baltimore in April after he had been traded from the A's, other Orioles hid behind off-the-record statements and brusque "no comments" when asked about Jackson's tactic. But when Palmer was interviewed, he stood up and said that he had "lost some respect" for his new teammate and accused him of hurting the club. More recently, stung by being left off the American League All-Star team, Palmer hotly referred to All-Star Manager Darrell Johnson of the Red Sox as "an idiot."

Since he can be so outspoken, yet is so reticent. Palmer must carry a lot within him. His wife Susan, whom both Palmers classify as the tougher one in the family, remembers that when she first got to know him, she asked him about his being adopted. He made a cursory response, and the matter has not come up again in all their years of marriage. Likewise, Leonhard, his good friend, can not recall Palmer ever mentioning the subject.

Palmer does not know who his natural parents are and professes no interest in the matter. He knows only that he grew up in New York as Jim Wiesen, the adopted son of Moe and Polly Wiesen. The father was a dress manufacturer and a Jew, the mother the owner of a boutique and a Catholic. (For years a trivia question among Jews has been: name the two greatest Jewish pitchers.) Palmer was raised in comfort, sometimes living in a large apartment, with servants, on Park Avenue, at other times in houses in suburban Westchester County. He did not realize that his father had a heart condition. When he was nine, he woke up one morning and saw a lot of cars in the driveway. He came downstairs to find out what was up. He learned his father had died in the night.

"You must always remember that Jim is happy and well adjusted despite having endured two potentially great traumas of childhood," says Susan. "He was adopted, then his father died. You read any book on child psychology, and you see what just one of these experiences can do to a child. Jim had both."

His mother moved Jim and his sister, who was also adopted, to California, where they resided briefly in Whittier, then in Beverly Hills. Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis lived across the street. Mrs. Wiesen married Max Palmer, a sometime actor and manager of the bars at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita. Jim took his stepfather's surname in 1959, his last year in California. Then the family moved to Scottsdale, Ariz. One of the first kids Palmer met there was Susan. She would come over and swim at his pool. But she was going with another guy. When that romance broke up, Palmer moved right in. He married her after the Orioles signed him to a $50,000 bonus. He was only 18 years old.

Superstars have extraordinary bodies. Sometimes we forget that it all comes down to that. As kids they are superior to other children. They can do practically anything athletic right off the bat and they just get better and better. Palmer's mother would not let him play football until his junior year in high school. He caught 54 passes and made all-state. He was all-state in baseball as well, and not just for his pitching; he hit .483 one season. He was all-state in basketball, too, averaging more than 25 points a game. Had he taken a scholarship offered by UCLA, he would have played with Lew Alcindor. Later, Palmer took up golf and broke 80 within a year; his pro said he could make the tour if he applied himself. Now, in between stints in his garden, Palmer plays a surprisingly good game of left-handed tennis—left-handed in order to protect his pitching arm.

It is important to keep in mind that virtually all of the great athletes have this sort of do-everything-well experience. And because they are clearly superior in physical endeavors, it is not difficult for them to perceive themselves as special in every way. This accounts for the way they feel about several things: about women, about money, about returning phone calls, about picking up tabs. When you have a great body, life does not seem to be encumbered by many imponderables. What sets Palmer apart is that he has not only seen how frail life can be, but also how vulnerable his great body is. After he starred in the World Series at age 20, an arm injury sent him plummeting to the lowest minors, to rejection by every major league team, to a day when he gave up 10 runs and 14 hits in a five-inning appearance against instructional league kids.

"I'd never failed at anything," Palmer says. "Nothing. Maybe this was supposed to happen. I can't complain. Maybe if this hadn't happened, I might not be the same person today." As soon as his arm was cured, he came back to the majors and was 16-4.

Since then he has rarely turned down a request for his time or his good name. His major national affiliation is not with some commercial product, but with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, for which he has served as national sports chairman for five years. On the road, on those days when he is not pitching, he turns himself over to the local chapters. He sees the sick kids in hospitals, he makes radio tapes, he gives speeches.

"You can't believe this guy," says Dave Shapiro, a trustee of the Northern Illinois CF chapter. "Do anything you ask, never any rush, and do it in every town. I've worked with a lot of these athletes. Even in their hometowns, they let you know they're doing you a favor to help out a charity. They'll show up late, they give you a short speech, and then they ask for money."

Like the rest of him, Palmer's altruism is little known. He makes nothing of it. "Look, I know who I am," he says. "I happen to get a great deal of satisfaction from helping people. A ballplayer can't completely divorce his one life from the other. We are parents, we are humans, we live in the community. Sometimes people don't understand that. They think we all eat funny foods.

"Why put off living the other part of your life? Why not be the human now as well as the ballplayer? I'm going to have a normal life sometime, and all this helping Cystic Fibrosis is helping me make the transition easier."

Says Susie Palmer: "The trouble with Jim is that he can't say no—to a fault. It seems to me that he must do all these things for others because of what he has: two healthy children, a good marriage. I guess this is just Jim's way for making up for being so happy."

As a pitcher, Palmer is a split personality. He moans about the inevitability of lucky hits, and when things go sour he paces about the mound, kicks the front of the rubber, stares out into the distance and alternately stretches his arm to wake it up or lets it dangle by his side, as if he does not recognize it and wants nothing to do with it. George Bamberger, the respected Oriole pitching coach, says that Palmer invariably falls into one slump a year—and into a state of abject despair. "Then all of a sudden he decides he's going to win nine in a row, and he's fine," Bamberger says.

But Palmer can be just as contrary if he is winning with bad stuff, the sign of a top pitcher. Once he complained and moaned between innings of a one-hitter. He will disparage his whole art: "You think pitching's all that difficult? Just go stand around the batting cage before a game and see how the best hitters do with some of the easiest pitches. When I'm out there and they're getting hits off my best pitches, lots of times I've thought, 'I bet I could get them out just by lobbing a few up.' "

He is a perfectionist, and while this is responsible for his success, it also is a source of occasional despair. "I don't care who you are, no human being can start off a game pitching to spots," says Bamberger. "You start off too fine and you are sure enough going to get behind." Manager Earl Weaver, the banty rooster who seems to keep his team of free agents together largely by telling them things they do not want to hear, says that Palmer's problem is compounded by the fact that his breaking pitches, which come in high before dipping at the last moment, look too much like balls for spineless umpires to dare call them properly as strikes.

Palmer's and Weaver's conversations about pitching must be fascinating, because neither will listen to the other on the subject. Smoking another Raleigh—and making sure to tuck away the coupon—Weaver says, "His control is off one night. He's walking guys. He's always giving out this stuff about how he's too smart to get into a big inning...he give you that? I thought so. But the trouble is—and he'll call me a damn liar—I think he gets into big innings sometimes by thinking too much about how he's not going to get into a big inning.

"So I said, 'You're starting to take something off them pitches.' And he said—get this—he said, 'No, I'm not. They're perfect pitches.'

"So I said, 'Yeah, you're right. They're too perfect. The hitter won't swing at them, and the umpire won't call them strikes.' "

Palmer shakes his head and says, "Earl means well. He is spontaneous, but he is also not afraid to apologize. The main thing is, you must never forget that playing baseball is an extension of your youth. Instead of having my parents scream at me, now I have Earl Weaver."

If Weaver or Bamberger should visit the Palmers' house, he would understand immediately why it is futile to try to persuade him to throw less than ideal pitches. There is not a thing out of place. Dust has been canceled, wrinkles outlawed. In the two daughters' bedrooms, even the dolls are neatly, symmetrically arranged. Years ago Leonhard dubbed Susan Palmer Susie Spotless, and she is a fair match for her husband. Outside, beyond the tidy garage where every implement cowers in its assigned location around the shiny Mercedes, the flowers stand at parade rest in his garden. Palmer lives in a strike zone, right on the corner, high and tight at the letters.

The house is located in Phoenix, Md., barely 20 minutes from Memorial Stadium, but it would be incorrect to pass it off as suburban. A sloping 17th-century house is nearby; the Palmer land was once part of that manor. It is rolling green Maryland farmland, just over from the hunt country where steeplechases are still run and the hounds and the riders in their hunter's pink are still blessed at the church before they take after foxes on Thanksgiving morning. The ball park, so near, is far away. The smell is of honeysuckle, the sounds are of birds and bees, and the sun shines benignly down on all Palmer's handiwork, which he has placed in the ground precisely and left-handed.

"I've planted just about everything," he says. "Except trees. They take too long to grow." It is the one concession to his profession, to trades and sales and to arms that wither and are gone. Besides, Palmer recognizes that these are unsure times for players.

Unlike him, most athletes settle for being gypsies; a new stereo set that has to be wired is the closest thing to permanence. So what is a new team? A new town? "I'll play anywhere they pay me well," says Oakland Outfielder Joe Rudi. But baseball, like a garden, is a fragile enterprise, and it takes only a slight shift to throw the delicate balance out of whack. Unless the smaller flowers are given some room, the larger plants will overshadow all, and soon only Gotham or Hollywood will bloom.

Palmer bears scant allegiance to Baltimore. He will abandon it and return to the West as soon as he is through playing. But he is a rarity among today's athletes; he perceives the interlocking needs of players, owners and cities. Already, he points out, people in baseball are dividing teams into a new version of the haves and have-nots—the cans and cannots. The cannots are unable to afford to be competitive; they cannot afford even to try for the pennant.

"The most depressing thing of all is to play on a team that you know right from the start of the season hasn't got a chance," Palmer says. "I almost signed with Houston instead of the Orioles. Think how different everything, all these years, would have been if I had done that. I would have been Larry Dierker. Think of him, all these years, pitching for that team. Now think how much worse it would be if you knew that you were with a team that not only couldn't win this year, but couldn't win any year."

Playing in one of the smallest market areas in the majors, the Orioles are fast approaching such status. Only recently the finest franchise in baseball, the organization is now threadbare. Fully one-fifth of its players are playing out their options. Management has been reduced to trading its malcontents to New York and getting odds and ends in return, instead of waiting for the end of the season, when it will get nothing for them. On the Orioles' bus during their most recent trip to New York, Jackson cheerfully called out to his teammates, "Who wants to go apartment hunting with me?" Palmer suspects that if Jackson and the others leave after the season, the Orioles also will unload him to a rich team, give up the ghost completely and become an official cannot.

"A large part of the problem is that Marvin Miller sits up there in New York and makes his decisions in a New York frame of mind," says Palmer. "There is a different attitude about this whole player thing in New York than there is in places like Baltimore. I'm sorry, I'm no owners' man, but is it to the players' advantage to move around, if there aren't many places to move to?

"Leave Baltimore aside. Take a city like Milwaukee. I don't know anything about it, except whenever I play there, I think to myself, 'This seems like a nice town.' The people are nice, there are nice restaurants. But who's going to want to play there if he's got a chance at a bigger city or a better team—and pretty soon all the bigger cities will have the better teams, so it'll be even more one-sided.

"Look, I'd love to play in L.A. Take Bobby Grich, who's another one of our guys playing out his option. He comes from California. If you come from there and you can make $80,000 or whatever in either place, where would you rather play, L.A. or Baltimore?

"But look, the Orioles offered me a good salary. It was fair enough. They've got to gamble that I'll give them three more healthy years. I've got a home here. It is a good team. We had a chance to win when the season started. Until you've won, you'll never know what really counts.

"I'm only 30, but players who are just two or three years younger than I am are from a whole different generation. They have different life-styles, different wants and needs. We just wanted to make the major leagues. They're all concerned about where they'll play. I didn't even know where Baltimore was when I signed. Really, I just knew it was on the East Coast.

"And all this is sad because nobody's going to want to play here or in Milwaukee. Pretty soon there might not be any baseball in Baltimore or Milwaukee. Is this good? Is this really good for the players? I guess in the end it comes down to: how selfish do we want to be?"

Weaver sits in the dugout, sucking on his Raleighs. He tilts his cap back on his head when he holds these audiences. The dugout is his best place. He never was much good on the field. He must hate guys like Palmer. As a player Weaver was a profane little scuffler, limited and lacking. He is short. Palmer is tall. Weaver is trained for nothing except baseball. If Palmer did not have a good arm, his blue eyes alone would still be enough to get him by. Weaver did not grow up with servants on Park Avenue or across the street from Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh. Weaver tries his best to drive Palmer crazy by maintaining that any major league pitcher should be able to get his curve over every time. It is his little game: you ain't perfect, Jim Palmer.

But, sitting in the dugout, even Weaver relents. "He's a nice guy, Jim, smart as they come," he says. "He's in every game. I'll tell you this about Palmer: he's one of the few guys left who root every night. There's not many of that kind around anymore." Earl Weaver will keep him in the rotation for as long as he possibly can.

PHOTOJOHN IACONOPalmer, who has a golden right arm, prefers to do most of his gardening with his green left thumb. PHOTOJOHN IACONOPalmer reflects on the citation he received for his work with the national Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. PHOTOJOHN IACONO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)