Here in Charm City, we’re so accustomed to Jim Palmer - his brilliant pitching over a 19-year career in Baltimore, the pancake breakfasts when he pitched, World Series victories in three decades, the high leg kick, the mischievous smile, the uncannily accurate memory, the sparring with Earl Weaver, the spot-on analysis - that it’s hard to believe that there are some people who don’t know who the best pitcher in Orioles history is.
I’ll let you chew on that for a few seconds.
Yes, to some, the Hall of Fame pitcher, now 66 and looking like he could take the mound and throw some BBs, is just another guy.
How is this possible?
Each year at this time, it’s not uncommon to see the sons of visiting players, coaches or managers accompany their dads on the road. Think of it as a reward for getting out of school (and a perk of having a father in the majors). It’s a pretty standard sight to see a dad and a son sharing a “Field of Dreams” moment on the field at Camden Yards - often before the gates open, certainly before the home team takes batting practice. And, being a sucker for such moments (and a guy who misses playing catch with my dad, a memory that always makes me smile), I’ll often stop and watch these impromptu sessions of catch.
A few years ago, Palmer was making his rounds of the visiting clubhouse when he exited the third base dugout and stumbled on one such tableau. He knew the dad, but not the child, yet that didn’t stop the greatest pitcher who ever put on an Orioles uniform from stopping to talk to the youngster, who was pitching to his pop. Palmer bent down to chat with the kid, showed him how to properly grip the baseball for better control and watched like a proud coach as the pre-teen put what he’d just said into practice with a couple of mitt-popping pitches.
His father beamed, thanked Palmer for the unscheduled lesson and as Palmer walked away, the kid looked at his father and, with all sincerity, asked, “Dad, who was that guy?”
Dad took a few seconds to explain what had just happened, how a guy with a plaque in Cooperstown, N.Y., with as effortless a delivery as there ever was, just gave him some pointers. About how lucky he was to get some up-close-and-personal coaching that most kids his age would love to have. About how the youngster needed to make sure Palmer knew he appreciated the moment. The next day, the kid made sure to thank Palmer, who once again stopped to talk to the pair.
But it’s not only kids who sometimes brain-cramp when in Palmer’s presence. Last year, Palmer recounted for me an instance in the Red Sox clubhouse where reliever Alfredo Aceves apparently didn’t know who Palmer was. Palmer, when broadcasting games for MASN, often works the visiting clubhouse to learn more about the players and teams facing the O’s. So Palmer made sure Aceves got a souvenir - a signed baseball noting he was a Hall of Famer - in hopes that the Boston pitcher would understand who the lanky, suntanned guy was and why he wanted to talk shop.
When you’re one of the best to ever take the mound, you get to do stuff like that. And you get priceless reactions, like the time Blue Jays catcher J.P. Arencibia sheepishly approached Palmer for a mea cupla after meeting him but not knowing who he was or what he’d accomplished: “I want to apologize. I Googled you and I realized you were really good.”
Really good? A bit of an understatement for a guy who won a franchise-best 268 games, was a three-time Cy Young Award winner, eight times won 20 games and was the youngest pitcher in history to pitch a shutout in the World Series (20 in 1966). He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, enshrined in Cooperstown in 1990.
I remember the day, circa 1977, when a friend and I happened upon Palmer in front of Memorial Stadium on a Sunday morning, when we were arriving for a doubleheader. Palmer was only too happy to stop and make our days by signing an autograph. I’ve still got that signature, too. It’s a coveted autograph, based on the number of packages of all shapes waiting for Palmer in the MASN mail room.
At MASN, we’re thrilled to have Palmer’s amazing recall as a part of our broadcasts. Time and again, people have challenged me, believing ol’ No. 22 got something wrong. Time and again, the record books and Baseball-Reference.com have proven Palmer right. All these years later, Palmer can remember in perfect detail pitch sequences to certain hitters, game situations when he was and wasn’t on the mound, strengths and flaws of hitters from a generation ago. It’s nothing short of incredible, and hearing Palmer spin a story from, say, a magical 1970 season makes me relish my career choice and dumb luck.
Few pitchers worked harder to stay healthy than Palmer, who battled arm and back problems early in his career. In the above circa 1970 photo from the Orioles archives, Palmer is shown on the trainer’s table with longtime O’s trainer Ralph Salvon, one of his closest friends during his Orioles tenure. Each winter, Palmer and Salvon would hop in a car and ride nonstop to the team’s former spring training base in Miami. Salvon took over as the top O’s trainer in 1968; it’s no coincidence that Palmer’s most dominant seasons began shortly thereafter.
Today, Palmer’s statue joins Frank Robinson and Weaver, his longtime teammate and manager, in Legends Park beyond the bullpens in left-center at Camden Yards. It’s a worthy honor in bronze for a guy who has become synonymous with the Orioles, on and off the field.
Photos used in the Flashback feature come from the Orioles’ photo archives. From time to time this season, we’ll take a look back at interesting people, places and events in Baltimore baseball history through the camera lenses that captured them and lend a historical perspective to what’s shown.