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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."