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."