Hope Flings Eternal

Jim Palmer's comeback is turning heads. And his isn't the only ancient arm in action
March 11, 1991

Not every old-timer tooling about Florida in his giant Caddy, whomping along the interstate at 45 mph, is on his way to some early-bird special. An increasing number of these geezers are on far more purposeful travels. From what can be gathered from a quick swing through the leisure villages, it seems a lot of these guys, these erstwhile retirees, are actually on their way to tryouts with major league baseball teams. "And why not," they say. "Everybody needs pitching."

By now, who doesn't know about Jim Palmer—seven years out of the big leagues and already elected to the Hall of Fame—and his comeback with the Baltimore Orioles? No TV affiliate worth its minicam has failed to document this event. The Hall of Fame angle is so cute, but there's also this: The man, for goodness' sakes, is older than Nolan Ryan! But Palmer is no isolated phenomenon this year. At 45 he's the oldest of the bunch, the longest removed from the diamond, the point man in this spring training's particular folly. But there are some other guys warming up out there who have gone years since last walking off a major league mound.

Among them is Matt Keough, who last pitched in the major leagues in 1986. After four years with the Hanshin Tigers in Japan, Keough, 35, is trying out with the California Angels. Remember Goose Gossage? He's attempting to catch on with the Texas Rangers after a one-year tour with the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks. Not everybody has come from a rehabilitation tour in the Far East. One arrived from Whitefish, Mont. Steve Howe, 33, whose history of drug and alcohol abuse got him banned from the game, is in the New York Yankees' camp. Howe's last big league out was on Sept. 28, 1987; his last drink, Jan. 22, 1989. Mike Flanagan, who actually pitched in the majors last year-all of 20 innings—is trying to catch on with the Orioles at 39.

There was a time when a player's final crime against fan sensibility was hanging on too long. Now players don't just play until they re too old; they play until they're too old, and then they retire from the major leagues, and then they come back. "The competitive fires keep burning in a great athlete, even after he's retired," says Baltimore manager Frank Robinson. "Also, there is nice money to be made."

There is that. Several in this ragtag rotation marvel at the vast sums they've missed during their absence from the big leagues. Howe, who lived month to month and hand to mouth during his exile in Montana, thinks his banishment cost him as much at $10 million. He sees his comeback as an opportunity "to make a substantial amount of money for my family in a relatively short time." For Howe, who startled the Yankees during his audition in late February with a fastball that scooted about the knees at 92 mph, that opportunity apparently depends more on the condition of his head than of his arm.

Palmer, too, would seem to be money-motivated. Consider that, in Palmer's long career with the Orioles, the most he ever earned in a season was $600,000; this season Roger Clemens will earn more than that in a month. When the minicams grouped in Miami—and later in Sarasota—to record Palmer's improbable tale, they were denied any heroic explanations for his particular crime against nature. Instead, reporters heard talk of "assured income" and of a "$3,200 pay cut" from Palmer's ESPN broadcasting gig and of "money-making alternatives." Major league baseball as moonlighting.

In fact, he says he never would have picked up a baseball last winter if ESPN, in budget cutbacks, hadn't tried to re-sign him to a three-year contract with reduced per-game payments. So, in what looked an awful lot like a negotiating wedge, Palmer began fooling around with a baseball in Mark Light Stadium at the University of Miami. There he happened to catch the attention of a 26-year-old Hurricanes assistant coach named Lazaro Collazo, whose pitching credentials amount to little more than eight appearances in relief for Miami in 1985. "You'll never get into the Hall of Fame with those mechanics," Collazo told him. Palmer replied as evenly as he could: "I'm already in the Hall of Fame."

Coach Laser (could he be called otherwise?) made Palmer's delivery more compact, using unorthodox drills whereby Palmer put a knee or a foot on a chair as he threw. Before long, Palmer found that he could put the ball where he wanted with less effort and pain. His comeback thus acquired a genuine momentum, and scouts were invited to come and assure his income.

But hardly anybody believes Palmer's comeback is only about money. For a man whose midriff is nearly as famous as Madonna's, it is fair to suspect that a certain vanity is involved. "I don't know if it was the Jockey ads or what," he says, "but a lot of people kept telling me I looked like I could still pitch." Because Palmer remains a legend in Baltimore, the Orioles felt obliged to find out. They sent scouts to see him three times, including minor league pitching instructor Dick Bosman, who beat Palmer for the American League ERA title in 1969. Although none of the observers required surgery to have their eyes put back into their sockets, the Orioles invited Palmer to their camp in Sarasota. There he has failed to excite either ridicule or astonishment. He's in fabulous condition, no question. But no matter whom he lines up with on the row of practice mounds, there is more pop in the gloves of catchers other than his.

The Orioles are hoping that Palmer, so prideful that throughout his career he refused to take the mound unless he was 100%, won't allow himself to be embarrassed. "Jim's a real pro," says Roland Hemond, Baltimore's general manager. "He'll let us know if he can do it or not."

The Orioles, who were greatly dignified by Palmer's 19 years of excellence, feel compelled to play along, offering Palmer every possible courtesy and opportunity to succeed. "If Jim Palmer wants to make a comeback," says Robinson, who was Palmer's teammate for six seasons, "he deserves to do it in an Orioles uniform. And if he does pull this off, I wouldn't want it to be for any other team. I'm rooting for him." But there is no real spot for him on the roster. And encouragement has been slight.

"How's Hall of Fame doing?" somebody asks a coach.

"It's early," he answers, and turns away.

In Palmer's quest to prove that you can throw home again, almost every particular of the episode has been exotic. There has never been a comeback quite like it. But some of the spring's other returns from retirement have that more familiar whiff of desperation or, rather, refusal to give up on the good life. "And believe me," says Robinson, "you don't know how good it is until you're out of it."

At a locker near Palmer's, Flanagan struggles with that dilemma of whether to leave gracefully or leave at all. Flanagan, the 1979 American League Cy Young winner as an Oriole, appeared to have erred on the side of leaving ugly when the Toronto Blue Jays unceremoniously cut him last May. But Flanagan faulted the strike-shortened spring training for his performance and decided to work his arm back into shape and try again. "And by September I felt like I was throwing too good to stop," he says. A chance meeting with Hemond at the Hall of Fame ceremonies in August encouraged Flanagan to visit with the Orioles. "Some guys get to the point where enough is enough," says Flanagan. "And some guys just love the game." And some guys are lefthanded pitchers, which gives Flanagan more than a sentimentalist's chance to make it.

Down the road at Port Charlotte is the Rangers' camp, site of the Gossage comeback. Although Gossage's career has observed the typical trajectory of hardthrowing relievers—an ERA that rises pretty much in accordance with age—he finds explanations for failure elsewhere. Don Zimmer, his manager on the Chicago Cubs in 1988, "may have been insecure" in his leadership, laying excessive blame on his closer. Roger Craig, Gossage's manager on the San Francisco Giants the next year, "never welcomed me."

Says Gossage, "I never had the opportunity to live and die my way. I struggled. I've always struggled at times. Remember that miracle season in 1978 with the Yankees, 14 games out and we come back to win the World Series? Well, we'd never have been 14 games out if it wasn't for my horrible pitching. But when you're 21 and don't get guys out, you're in a slump. It happens at 39 and you're done."

Texas manager Bobby Valentine promises to give the Goose more than a gander. "He was throwing the ball well," Valentine said after watching him in a recent workout. "If he doesn't get any better, then it's borderline."

Gossage figures a shot is all he needs, and that he will get better. "The way I'm throwing, if I was a prospect out of college, I'd be a pretty good prospect." But being a 39-year-old fireballer brings a different set of standards to bear. "You like to think you can't fool yourself," he says. "I guess Sugar Ray Leonard didn't think he was over the hill either."

Across the country in Mesa, Ariz., Keough, a member of the Oakland A's from 1977 to '83, is on the hill again. His four-year tour with Hanshin ended last year when he was released. So he dropped by Anaheim Stadium during voluntary workouts this winter and asked Angel pitching coach Marcel Lachemann if he could throw. Lachemann was surprised at Keough's condition, as well as his curve, and invited him to camp. Keough understands what he's up against. "When you're gone four years, people assume you're gone," he says. "You have to prove you're still alive."

The far more intriguing comeback is Howe's. He was baseball's most tragic tale of talent betrayed by drugs. The National League Rookie of the Year with the Dodgers in 1980, he was all arrogance and heat; just three years later, his cocaine-induced slide left him bankrupt. Howe concedes that he was resistant to reform, and it wasn't until 1988, armed with a combination of newly found religion and continued drug therapy, that he tapped into a life of sobriety.

By then, the addiction appeared to have ended Howe's ability to earn major league money again, although he never really believed that. After he was suspended for the sixth time, in 1988, he was cast out of baseball by imperial edict. That was later amended to allow him to play minor league ball in 1990, with a chance to move up to the majors this year. So Howe pitched for Class A Salinas last season—he had a 2.12 ERA in 10 games—and for Mazatlan in the Mexican Pacific League this winter. And maybe he will pitch for the Yankees this summer. "They lost Rags [Dave Righetti]," said Howe upon his arrival in Fort Lauderdale two weeks ago, "and here I come."

But Howe, who showed up in camp at least looking like some humble rookie (he borrowed Don Mattingly's spikes for his audition and wore some flannels that appeared to date from his Dodger days), revels more in his sobriety than in his chance to pitch again. "Do you know what it's like to wake up in the morning and not have to go out and check the car, to ask around and make sure you didn't hurt anybody?" he asks. "I'd like to make this team. I intend to. But for some reason I feel like I've already got it made."

Some of these pitchers will make a club this spring, because as anyone can tell you, everybody needs pitching. And the wisdom of age and experience is perhaps better applied on a pitching mound than in most places in sport. But some of the returnees are probably fooling themselves. The miracles of spring do not ordinarily come by the half dozen. For the youngsters who dress beside them in the clubhouse, though, these aged hopefuls offer an unnerving glimpse of the future. And there's a message attached. Maybe you should enjoy this game while you can, is the simple lesson—because you'll never be able to enjoy it as long as you want.

PHOTOJOHN IACONOPalmer, 45, is attempting what would be the granddaddy of all comebacks. (Card: 1966) PHOTO© THE TOPPS COMPANY, INC.[See caption above.] PHOTOJOHN IACONOGossage is hoping he can find enough of the old heat to stick with Texas. (Card: 1976) PHOTO© THE TOPPS COMPANY, INC.[See caption above.] PHOTORONALD C. MODRAOnce banned from the game, Howe believes that he has already come back. (Card: 1982) PHOTO© THE TOPPS COMPANY, INC.[See caption above.] PHOTOV.J. LOVEROAfter four years in Japan, Keough wants a Stateside job. (Card: 1980) PHOTO© THE TOPPS COMPANY, INC.[See caption above.]