Tragedy taught Palermo life lessons

Twenty years later, Steve Palermo — then the No. 1 rated umpire in baseball — hasn’t forgotten the slightest detail of those early morning hours, laying on the street outside a Dallas restaurant, shot by a mugger, uncertain he would see another tomorrow.

"I looked up at Jimmy Upton," Palermo said in reference to a friend who worked at the restaurant, "and said, ‘Jimmy, if I die, you tell (wife) Debbie that I love her.’ Jimmy, in his perfect Texas English, said, ‘Stevie, there ain’t no dying going on here tonight.’"

Jimmy Upton was right.

Palermo not only survived, he has successfully battled the diagnosis of lower body paralysis with the aid of a slight leg brace and a cane, and while he no longer is calling balls and strikes in major league games, he continues to work for Major League Baseball as a supervisor of umpires.

Palermo and the other members of his umpiring crew were working a Texas Rangers-California Angels series in Arlington, Texas, the weekend before the All-Star break in 1991. After the game on July 7, they were having a late dinner at Campisi’s Egyptian Restaurant in Dallas, a favorite haunt for umpires.

"We are unwinding after the game, and one of the employees hollers that two of the waitresses, who were walking to their cars, were being mugged," recalled Palermo. "A friend of mine, Terrance Mann, a former football player at Southern Methodist University, and I were running after this one mugger. We catch him and one of the other guys calls 911.

"While we are waiting for the police, this car pulled up and a guy got out and pulled a .32 caliber pistol. He fired five shots at us. The first bullet hits T-Man (in the neck) and went in and out. The second bullet hit him (in the arm) and went in and out. The third bullet hit his right thigh.

"The fourth bullet hit a wall behind us, and then fifth bullet hit me, waist high. It actually bounced off my kidney, hit my spinal cord and hit the nerves that come out at the base of your spine, the Cauda Equina. … I’m laying on the ground and thinking, ‘Now you’ve got yourself in something you can’t even talk your way out of."

Two days later, doctors told Palermo he would never walk again.

The doctors didn’t know Steve Palermo, the Worcester, Mass., native, who had made a rapid rise in the umpiring world, spending only five years in the minor leagues before being given a big-league job in 1977.

In 15 years on the job he had emerged as the most respected umpire in the game by his peers, players and the public. He worked the 1983 World Series, the ALCS four times and the 1986 All-Star Game.

And they didn’t know Debbie Palermo, who just five months earlier had married Steve.

"Debbie was in Kansas City when it happened and she found out about four in the morning,’’ said Palermo. "She got packed, headed to the airport and was in Dallas by the time I came out of surgery. She looked over and said, ‘You said for better or worse, for richer or poorer.’ You said, ‘until death do us part, but you never said anything about being shot. That wasn’t part of the program.’

"Right then I knew she had what it was going to take for us to get through this. She propped me up and inspired me. I felt, if she was going to be like that, we were going to figure out a way to work through this."

Treated at Parkland Hospital in Dallas, the same hospital President John F. Kennedy was taken after being felled by an assassin, Palermo found himself in a room that had been remodeled by a previous patient, who wanted a more homey feeling as he dealt with a battle of paralysis.

"The guy was a CEO of a huge tech company and had a 1,200 pound temporary wall for a squash court fall on him," remembered Palermo. "It doubled him up where his nose was down where his toes were. He was told he would never walk again. … One day he came through the (hospital room) door and relayed the story to me. The key is he walked through the door and told me doctors told him he would never walk again. He told me he had overcome that and, well, I knew I had to do just what he did."

Buoyed by an outpouring of support he never could have imagined, Palermo did.

One correspondence sticks out.

"A few years prior, I was working first base in Boston and there’s this tow-headed blond kid with his dad and a buddy in the first row of the stands," Palermo said. "I walked over and picked up his glove and walked off with it. I took a baseball out of my pocket and stuffed it into the glove. On the thumb, he had written his name, Ethan Kerr.

"So I walked back over and I said, ‘Is there an Ethan Kerr here?’ This little kid is jumping up and down, and his friend is jumping up and down. I say, ‘excuse me, are you Ethan Kerr? Can I see you driver’s license?’ He says, ‘I’m only 10 years old. I can’t drive. … Dad, tell him who I am.’ The father says, ‘Yes, this is Ethan Kerr.’ So I handed him the glove and walked away. I could hear him, ‘Dad, there’s a baseball in here.’

"An inning later they call me over and he had taken up a collection and bought me a coke. I offered him some sugar-free gum and he and his friend give me peanuts."

One afternoon at the hospital the daily mail delivery was made. Debbie opened a letter and began to cry.

"I am thinking, is this a death threat," remembered Palermo. "She handed me the card, and to paraphrase, it read, ‘Dear Mr. Palermo, I know you don’t remember me, but a few years back you stole my glove at Fenway Park and put a baseball in it.’ He basically retells the whole story, and then writes, ‘I hope you get well and I can see you umpire again,’ and at the bottom he signed it, ‘Love, Ethan Kerr.’

"I read that and I started crying."

It was an inspiration to Palermo, as well as a lesson he relates today to young umpires.

"You know, as an umpire, you try to make the day a little bit better at the ballpark, and let the fans enjoy the game," said Palermo. "For the fans to relay what it meant to them in a card afterwards. … Hey, we better pay attention out there. It’s important what goes on between the white lines, but those people who sit on the other side of those white lines, it’s really important for them, too.

"We all need to be good ambassadors and stewards of the game because people are paying attention and they love this game."