If you’re on the Orioles pitching staff, Jim Palmer makes a point to introduce himself.
Recently, the 77-year-old came down the elevator from his perch in the broadcast booth to the Orioles clubhouse, meeting Yennier Cano at his locker. But the Cuban native still needed a little context to know who exactly he was talking to.
Team interpreter Brandon Quinones gestured to the hallway just to the left of Cano’s locker, where an enormous picture of Palmer — in his pitching heyday, mid-high-kick in his wind-up — hung on the wall.
It’s easy to take greatness for granted, even when it’s feet away from you.
There is no sign that Palmer, a Hall of Famer and three-time World Series winner, is slowing down 44 years into his broadcasting career — a second calling that has more than doubled his tenure as a pitcher.
As much as any of the fixtures at Camden Yards — and Palmer’s place as a color commentator predates them all — he feels like an indelible part of the place, an immutable fixture of the Orioles. Generations that grew up listening to him on television have raised their own children who learn the game from his understated, patient timbre.
Why does he keep at it? Some people his age have their crossword puzzles. Palmer has broadcasting. It keeps him sharp, he says.
About a decade ago, he spilled into a conversation with a flight seatmate who happened to run learning symposiums. Retirement had already been on his mind, and he asked the man something he had been chewing on.
“I asked him, ‘If I stop broadcasting, how long before my brain will turn into a melon?’” he recounts. “He said he’d give me 18 months. So that was all I had to hear.”
What would Orioles baseball be without Jim Palmer? Every now and then, one must consider that question.
Earlier this year, Palmer learned that three small freckles by the crease of his right eye were actually melanoma. He took some time away from the game to get Moh’s surgery done by his eyelid, then reconstructed to look like it did before – save some scar tissue.
“Otherwise your eye droops, and I don’t do radio” says Palmer, with a laugh. “I have to have somewhat of a good face for television.”
While Father Time may have been kind to Palmer’s face, it has challenged him elsewhere. This wasn’t even his first bout with skin cancer: he had instances in his shoulder and his arm before this latest surgery. He got a knee replaced a few years ago; got a few lumbars in his lower back fused. Last summer, he got an ablation procedure on his heart, but missed the advice to take a diuretic. He woke up at 4 a.m., barely able to breathe.
“That was the first time I went to the hospital in an ambulance,” Palmer says. “But two days later, I’m at the gym.”
With that background, it seems Herculean that Palmer still grinds out 81 games a season, including on the road. He was on the road trip to New York last week that got back at 3 a.m. Prior to games, he doesn’t stay up top with the bird’s eye view; he’s down by the batting cages, or in the clubhouse, or in the dugout, trading stories and slapping the backs with the many legions of people he knows in baseball.
A conversation with Palmer is the kind you’d want to have with a Hall of Famer. You ask for 10 minutes; he gives you 20. He name drops, yes — he spins off anecdotes with Reggie Jackson, Tim McCarver and Tony LaRussa — but not in a showy way. These are his peers, and his name is just as big as any of them.
A good pearl of advice from anyone who works with him in broadcasting — or spends more than a few minutes with him at all — is to just let Jim talk.
“When Jim is telling a story about pitching in a World Series, or if he’s telling a story about getting a haircut in 1974, I know it’s going to be entertaining,” says Kevin Brown, his MASN broadcasting partner. “Sometimes you just wanna let Jim cook, because he has lived a fuller life than almost anybody I know.”
It’s probably worth side-stepping a hornet’s nest here: Regional sports networks across the country are in turmoil, and MASN’s future is further clouded by legal judgements that are going against it.
Palmer lends the broadcast a measure of his time-earned dignity and venerated presence. He says has a two-year option in his contract that could take him nearly into his 80s.
He’s not afraid to put in the work. That starts with his gym routine, which on a recent day was 20 minutes of stretching and ab work following by rowing and biking. Then he gets to the park, and colleagues marvel at how he prepares. Palmer will casually mention articles he’s read about an opponent who isn’t on the docket for weeks.
“The great thing about Jim is he also understands the modern game really well,” Brown said. “He could just coast. He could just tell nine innings of Willie Mays and Duke Snider and Brooks Robinson stories, but he doesn’t. He picks his spots.”
Palmer doesn’t think of any of his routine as particularly special, noting that the Orioles’ other former pitcher in the booth, Ben McDonald, does just as much work as him. And indeed, many teams have former franchise legends who do work on TV.
But find another who pitched against Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron.
What might be most special about Palmer is the way he keeps giving back to the game. Most of the roster is young enough to be his grandchildren. But while many of Palmer’s relationships are with the coaching staff, he connects with the starting rotation as well. He texted Grayson Rodriguez encouragement after a recent ugly start. He advised Dean Kremer on how to get strikeouts “when you really need ‘em.”
Tyler Wells credits Palmer with helping shape his recent mental approach to pitching with simple advice: Don’t give hitters too much credit.
“I think that whenever he described that to me, it allowed me to be more aggressive toward hitters,” Wells said. “Because I never really thought about it that way, in that they’re still failing 7 out of 10 times.”
Hitters might still be the group Palmer holds the most spite for — everyone else seems to be a friend. And that’s why, even besides a desire to keep sharp, to stave off old age, he seems to keep coming back to work.
“He still has a genuine joy for being here,” Brown said. “I think that shows up in the way that he treats other people. The way he interacts with ballpark ushers or visiting stadium attendants or any friends and family members I bring up to the booth before a game. He’s just genuine and kind to everybody.”
It’s possible, too, that the Orioles’ resurgence is putting back a little spring in Palmer’s step. As long as the fans and the Angelos family want him back, Palmer says, he’ll do the job — “as long as you’re able to maintain a standard.” He thinks the world will tell him when it’s time to hang up the mic.
It’s funny that Palmer seems to be stacking so much importance on the opinions of others, when most people still want to just hear what he thinks.
“Whenever Jim speaks,” Wells says, “you just shut up and listen.”
Here’s hoping there’s a lot of listening left to do.