Former umpire Palermo steadfastly defies the odds
MLB supervisor continues dedication to his work after overcoming spinal-cord injury
If Steve Palermo could have hit a curveball, maybe things would be different.
Maybe he wouldn't have been at that Dallas restaurant on that summer night. Maybe he would have been a star shortstop for his beloved Boston Red Sox. He played the position as a kid, the anchor of the defense, the one in charge.
Then again, Palermo isn't one to entertain hypotheticals. He's far too concerned with the present to agonize over what could have been.
His inability to consistently whack the curve wasn't for a lack of trying. This is Steve Palermo, after all -- the personification of a perfectionist, the guy who isn't satisfied with just proving wrong the doctor who told him he would never walk again.
"He's probably mad he's not running marathons," said Major League umpire Ted Barrett.
The heroic tale of a resilient man punished while doing a good deed isn't without its afflictions and moments of mental and physical torment. It hasn't been a smooth journey since the night that bullet pierced Palermo's left kidney, ripped through his abdomen and struck his spinal cord.
Still, as he has proven and explained in his frequent public-speaking endeavors, surrendering isn't part of Palermo's makeup. He now serves as Major League Baseball's umpire supervisor, an ideal position given his physical limitations, as he can instead push others to be mistake-free.
Others aren't Steve Palermo, though.
A determination to be perfect is what rifled him through the Minor League umpiring system in an unprecedented five years, what spurred him to rush to the aid of two women who were being mugged outside of that Italian restaurant in 1991, and what leaves him short of being fulfilled today. Even at the age of 63, Palermo envisions himself on the field one day, being MLB's best umpire.
"Don't think you've gotten exactly where you want to get to," Palermo said, "because there's always something that you want to try to achieve."
A person so fixated on perfection couldn't submit to playing a sport in which failing seven out of 10 times is deemed a success. So after realizing he couldn't quite cut it at the plate, Palermo found his niche behind it, and he took a liking to a position that permits no margin for error, a concept that played right into his persona.
"You have to be perfect with every call that you make," he said.
At 13, Palermo called his brothers' games, earning $2 per contest on a Little League diamond in Oxford, Mass. Six years later, he assisted his best friend's father in working a District 5 Little League all-star game. Barney Deary, then baseball's administrator for baseball umpire, was at the event to watch his nephew play and tracked down Palermo afterward.
"I thought it was somebody's dad wanting to beat me up because I called his son out on strikes," Palermo said.
Rather, Deary asked Palermo if he ever considered a career as an umpire.
"I had no idea what it would entail," Palermo said. "I thought you work about four or five games and then go and work at Fenway Park."
Deary recommended to Palermo an MLB-operated umpire school in St. Petersburg, Fla. Against the wishes of his father -- a school administrator and principal -- Palermo enrolled in the program instead of completing his college education. Palermo went to the Minor Leagues, which he blitzed through in five years, about half the time it typically takes.
In October 1976, Nestor Chylak, Palermo's mentor and an eventual Hall of Famer, convinced MLB umpire supervisor Dick Butler to let Palermo work the final two games of the regular season between the Orioles and Red Sox at Fenway. The following year, the American League tendered him a contract.
|"We all look at it like, 'Look what you accomplished, from getting out of bed to being a functioning person with a profession. I think in the back of his mind, whether he admits it or not, he thinks he failed by not umpiring again."|
|-- Umpire Ted Barrett|
In his second season in the Majors, Palermo signaled a fair ball on Bucky Dent's game-winning home run in the Yankees' one-game playoff victory against the Red Sox. Palermo worked the AL Championship Series in 1980, '82 and '89, and the World Series in '83.
He routinely offered advice to his colleagues, who often accepted it. Tom Hallion worked a Spring Training game with Palermo one year. The two had different styles and barely knew each other, Hallion being a youngster employed by the National League. Palermo suggested a new way for Hallion to take a play at second base, and 25 years later, Hallion continues to employ that technique.
"Steve was trying to make you better when he was out on the field with you," Hallion said.
But after nearly 15 years in the league, Palermo was heaved the biggest curveball of his life.
On July 7, 1991, Palermo and two friends, Terrence Mann and Corky Campisi, chased three muggers who were robbing two waitresses outside of a restaurant. The group pinned one of the assailants to the ground but the others escaped in a getaway car. As they waited for the police, the car returned, and out stepped a man who fired five bullets, three of which struck Mann under the chin, in the right arm and in the right thigh. The fourth bullet harmlessly dented the wall of a Mrs. Baird's bakery. The fifth bullet altered Palermo's life.
"I had people telling me that a sharpshooter on a SWAT team couldn't have done all the damage it did," Palermo said.
An ambulance transported Palermo to Parkland Hospital, where, two days later, a doctor told him that he wouldn't walk again. Palermo admits that the doctor's conviction initially planted doubt in his mind, but aloud, Palermo scoffed at the medical projection and countered with his own conjecture.
"I said, 'OK, well, I'll show you,'" Palermo said. "'I don't care how good of a doctor you are. I'm going to make you wrong.' That's what drives me, is that perfectionism and just trying to get the job done."
During his rehabilitation, Palermo befriended two children, Mitchell and Cody, who had suffered traumatic brain injuries. The trio used treadmills to refamiliarize themselves with walking. The boys would increase their pace, which prompted Palermo to amp up the speed on his machine. They jockeyed back and forth throughout the 20-minute exercise each day.
"I wasn't going to let some 8-year-old beat me on the treadmill as I was trying to learn how to walk," Palermo said.
That competitiveness and obsession to recover didn't always work in his favor.
Palermo wanted to walk on his own, without his body enveloped in braces -- visible reminders that his career was stolen from him. Then, he wanted to get back on a baseball field. Then, given his ever-ambitious aspirations, who knows, maybe he wanted to step foot on the moon.
Palermo was a patient with little patience. He demanded daily progress, with no tolerance for setbacks or stagnancy. Two years after he started physical therapy, he hit a lull and wasn't improving as rapidly as he preferred. So each night, he snuck down to the rehab room at 3 a.m. and worked out on his own.
"I hit a wall and got discouraged," Palermo said. "With this kind of injury, sometimes things come progressional. That can be very difficult to accept."
His stealthy ways only hindered his betterment. He would be so fatigued for his scheduled workout at 9 a.m. the following morning that he couldn't complete his trainer's assignments.
"You have to open up your eyes and say, 'At some point, I'm going to hit that wall,'" Palermo said. "When you do, you're going to figure out how to get through it."
Palermo figured it out. Now, with the help of a cane, he walks. He drives. He golfs. He shops. He works in baseball.
As supervisor, Palermo trains and evaluates Major League umpires and those in Triple-A, so any big league openings can be promptly filled.
Sometimes Palermo isn't sure how to approach aspiring umpires. When he teaches, he has to describe, rather than demonstrate, using words instead of motions.
"You feel for him because he was a very active umpire and very mobile," said MLB umpire Bob Davidson.
He can't contort his body to convey how to get in proper position to make a call. He can't show his pupils the route to run when verifying whether a foul ball has been caught. The umpires have to hone their mechanics and timing based on the vivid picture Palermo verbally paints.
That is another challenge, another curveball, that fateful night has forced upon him. It's one he holds in high regard. If he can't be out there calling balls and strikes, then his replacement better be qualified to do so.
"If he could just stand in one place, he could umpire," Hallion said. "But umpiring is about quick movement and that's part of the body that doesn't work the way it should for Steve. I'm sure he sits in the stands while he's evaluating us and wishes he was out there or that he was on second base to show a younger umpire what he should've done.
"Deep down, I think he's disappointed, but probably more frustrated than disappointed."
Therein lies the conundrum: Even after everything Palermo has achieved, he's not quite satisfied with where he is.
Barrett spent time with Palermo in Mexico City while working the 2009 World Baseball Classic. He learned firsthand how umpiring wasn't just a job to Palermo, but a passion. It was his life.
"We all look at it like, 'Look what you accomplished, from getting out of bed to being a functioning person with a profession,'" Barrett said. "I think in the back of his mind, whether he admits it or not, he thinks he failed by not umpiring again."
Palermo departed for a Spring Training trip on Tuesday as he embarked on another season of instruction and tutelage. Maybe one of these years, he'll make it out onto the field in some capacity during a real game. He certainly isn't betting against himself.
"The one thing that I've proved or learned," Palermo said, "is that the human spirit and drive and determination, you can't ever sell that short. ... Had I known then what I know now about how much damage was done to my spinal cord, I probably would've said, 'I'm fighting an uphill battle here that just can't be won. I might as well stay in this wheelchair.'
"But sometimes I think that's what drove me, was that, 'OK, you put this challenge out there for me. You stuck this carrot out on the stick and now I'm going to try to run it down.'"
As it's turned out, when life threw Steve Palermo a curveball, he knocked it out of the park.
"I'd be shocked if he ever gave up and said, 'To hell with it, I can't do this,'" Hallion said.
"That's just not Steve Palermo."