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WHEELER: Wednesday Notes And A Conversation With a Hall of Famer

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Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images

Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images

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Here are just a few quick tidbits from Roger Dean Stadium in the lead-up today’s game, followed by a story I shared with a Hall of Fame pitcher today…

- Chris Carpenter reported in the same condition he left in yesterday, which is good. Nothing new to report. Mild left hamstring strain. Tony LaRussa said the tentative plan is for him to skip his next start. LaRussa also said that missing a start or two wouldn’t keep Carpenter from being ready for the start of the regular season.

- No news on Mitchell Boggs, which is also good. Still just a lower back strain that is not believed to be a significant problem at this point. For now they’re just taking things day by day.

- The Cardinals have changed around their plan for starting pitchers this week. There are split squad games tomorrow and Jaime Garcia will start the road game with Brandon Dickson starting the home game. Dave Duncan will be with the home squad, LaRussa will take the road squad to Port St. Lucie to face the Mets. Kyle McClellan was originally set to start that home game tomorrow but he’s been moved to Saturday instead.

The significance of that is that now McClellan is on a spring plan that would slot him into the 5th start of the regular season. Yesterday Duncan explained that this would put the team in a position where no adjustment would have to be made if McClellan wins the job.

He’s looked like the favorite to me all along but LaRussa and Duncan will let things play out on the field rather than making any kind of decisions on that right now.

- Jim Palmer is visiting Cardinals’ camp today and I actually had a Jim Palmer story, one that I brought up to him in conversation today down on the field before the game:

Flash back to the Spring of 1991. Jim Palmer, already in the Hall of Fame, was attempting a comeback with the Orioles and he was working out with pitching coach Lazaro Collazo down at the University of Miami in the lead-up to Spring Training.

Well, I was a freshman backup/bullpen catcher at The U back in the Spring of ’91 and I was asked to get my gear on one day before a practice and head down to the bullpen.

When I got down there I was introduced to Palmer and was told I’d be catching his bullpen session. I was fired up, to say the least. Getting a chance to catch for a Hall of Famer was pretty cool in my book, especially considering that I was a baseball fanatic who read everything I could get my hands on regarding America’s Pastime when I was a kid.

At first the bullpen session was uneventful. Palmer was throwing fastballs, locating them exactly where he intended to, and I was having a good old time. The whole time I just kept trying to look cool and act like it was no big deal, even though it was to me, and I was taking special care not to make any wild throws back to the Hall of Famer standing 60’6″ away from me.

After a few minutes of fastballs, Palmer signaled he was going to throw a curve ball. I was ready and certainly wasn’t going to let anything that hit the dirt get past me. He snaps off ol’ Uncle Charley and I twisted myself into a pretzel – first starting to stand and reach up to my left only to torque back down to my right – as I desperately tried to snag the 12-6 curve (maybe more like 11-5, but whatever) as I dropped back down to my knees.

Well, I caught it but not without turning myself into the Tazmanian Devil in my effort to do so. I had never seen a curve ball break like that before. You have to understand that if a high school or college pitcher starts a curveball above your head to the left it’s going to stay up there 99% of the time. You don’t see too many guys at that level who can throw a ball at the batter’s front shoulder and drop it on the catcher’s right foot.

After I caught the ball and tossed it back to the mound Palmer said, “That’s a curve ball, kid” and laughed. The cool thing was the way he did it. He wasn’t laughing at me or mocking me, he was just amused and having fun. Heck, he was probably happy his first curve of the session was that good.

I can’t remember how many pitches Palmer threw to me that day but I remember enjoying every single one of them. After the bullpen session was over he thanked me and I headed back over to the dugout to get my gear off and head back into the clubhouse.

When I sat down in the dugout I was surrounded by 8-10 baseball reporters who came down to see what the comeback was all about. They asked me if I minded answering a few questions and, being a Broadcast Journalism major in addition to a catcher, I was more than happy to oblige. Big shock, I know. Kevin likes to talk…

The first question they asked me was “How did he look?”

Okay, here’s the situation. Again, I’m a 19 year-old freshman catcher. I just caught a bullpen session for a Hall of Fame pitcher and to be totally honest (I can do that now, 20 years later) Palmer’s stuff wasn’t that great. The curve was excellent, as I detailed before, but the fastball wasn’t there (maybe 80 MPH and that’s a big maybe) and that’s a bit of a problem for a guy trying to get Major Leaguers out.

Keep in mind, this come back was AFTER Palmer was in the Hall of Fame. So he pitched 20-plus years in the big leagues and then sat out another 5-6 before being inducted and THEN trying a comeback. His fastball shouldn’t have been impressive. Nobody could have expected otherwise.

So, back to the question. “How did he look?”

My answer, as it showed up in print in sports pages all over (including the Miami Herald, a copy of which I still have somewhere) went as follows: “He looked like a Hall of Famer to me.”

The reporters laughed, one guy said I’d have a future in the media business if baseball didn’t work out (good call, huh?), and they followed up with a few questions I could answer honestly, without having to say the guys I caught in high school threw harder than the Hall of Famer, and then I went on about my business.

Now I’m one of the guys asking questions that sometimes cannot be answered with 100% honesty.

Funny how things work out, isn’t it?

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