Friday, March 04, 2011

Hope Springs Eternal - Jim Palmer's comeback attempt (1991)

There are plenty of good Spring Training updates out there along with projections for player and team performance headed into 2011. For something different, I figure it's interesting to revisit stories of seasons past when, as seems to happen nearly every year, "Hope Springs Eternal" for players and teams. Last time I focused on Sammy Sosa's arrival in Baltimore. This time it's Jim Palmer's attempted comeback in 1991.

If nothing else, Jim Palmer's attempted comeback with the Orioles during Spring Training in 1991 gave us one of the all-time great newspaper ledes: "Jim Palmer can still pitch underwear but he can no longer pitch baseballs."

Already in the Hall of Fame, Palmer, the noted Jockey spokesman, attempted to defy age in the pre-HGH days by returning to O's camp at age 45, one year older than Roger Clemens when he retired and one year younger than Nolan Ryan was at the time of his retirement.

Palmer's fastball topped out at 75 MPH during his lone Spring Training game, some seven miles per hour faster than Ryan's first pitch in Arlington during the 2010 World Series. Palmer allowed two runs on five hits, a walk, and a balk in two winnings of work against the Red Sox with Boston batters missing contact only once in 15 swings.

Despite stating after his lone exhibition outing that it would be "premature to quit now," Palmer's comeback attempt indeed ended due to a hamstring injury he suffered while running wind sprints prior to facing the Red Sox. He likened the sound he heard to a Rice Krispie pop. In an earlier intrasquad game, Palmer tossed two innings and allowed two runs on four hits, one of which was a wind-assisted home run by catcher Chris Hoiles. 

Sports Illustrated chronicled Palmer's efforts - along with those of other aging pitchers like Goose Gossage, Steve Howe, and fellow Orioles camper Mike Flanagan, age 39 - in the March 11, 1991, article "Hope Flings Eternal."

Here are a couple of excerpts from that piece:
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.

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.

Related Reading:

Hope Springs Eternal: When Sammy Sosa came to Baltimore

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