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Thursday, July 5
Updated: July 8, 12:55 AM ET
Palermo has impact on game, lives

It's a summer Saturday night in Dallas -- actually, it's already Sunday morning -- and Steve Palermo is feeling exceptionally good.

Steve Palermo
Ten years ago in Dallas, Steve Palermo's life changed forever.
After working third base at the Texas Rangers game, the 15-year veteran umpire has showered and retired to Campisi's Egyptian Restaurant, a cozy Italian joint. There with Richie Garcia, one of his fellow crew members, and a few friends, he shares pizza, pasta and some fruit of the grape. It is just before the All-Star break and Palermo eagerly looks forward to heading home to Kansas City for three days with his wife of five months, Debbie.

The conversation, warm and increasingly spirited, is cut short when bartender Jimmy Upton screams across the room: "Two waitresses are getting mugged across the street."

There is no hesitation. Palermo is one of six men who dash out the front door and chase the three muggers. Two of them escape in a car, but Palermo and a friend pin the third to the ground. While they are waiting for the police, the car returns. Palermo hears the squealing tire and then, the gut-wrenching spit-spit-spit of gunfire.

The first three bullets hit Palermo's friend, Terrence Mann, and the fourth hits a wall. The fifth? It enters through Palermo's back, slices through his kidney and into his spinal cord and vertebra. Palermo, who slowly falls to his knees, is instantly paralyzed.

An ambulance takes him to Parkland Memorial Hospital, the same hospital that received fallen President John F. Kennedy. "If I die," he tells a friend, "make sure Debbie knows I love her."

After surgery the doctor is apologetic and, truth be told, a little bit preachy. "You're lucky to be alive," he begins. "We're never sure, but we don't think you'll ever be able to walk again."

Palermo, a battler from the beginning, looks him in the eye.

"I appreciate your opinion," he says, calmly, "but I'm going to prove you wrong."

An eternity, a heartbeat
That was July 7, 1991. Ten years ago. A decade. An eternity and, in a strange way, a heartbeat.

"I know," Debbie Palermo said Thursday from her home in Overland Park, Kan. "Sometimes, it seems like yesterday. Sometimes, it seems like 20 years ago."

Steve Palermo, 51, wakes up every morning to a suffocating, searing pain, but at least he's feeling something. A little rationalizing can sometimes get you through a long day.

"Hey," Palermo said Thursday, "it's all relative."

Where, precisely, is the pain -- the back, the thighs, the calves?

"All of the above," Palermo said, without a trace of self-pity in his voice. "It's a chronic, constant pain through the middle of the back, down through the hips, hamstrings and calves. You just have to deal with it.

For Palermo, there was never any choice but to run through that door in Dallas.

"When that happens, you don't pick Door No. 1 or Door No. 2 with Monty Hall. You just do what you have to do. I just happened to get in the way."

Of course, he willed himself to walk again. There were days when the tears didn't stop, times when he wondered if he could back up his vow at that first press conference. Forget the old cliché, a day at a time -- this incremental war was won minute by minute, second by second. The phrase that he and Debbie came to embrace: Inch by inch, life's a cinch.

Steve Palermo
Palermo says there's no comparison between umpiring and what he does in his current role: "As an umpire, you're flat-out doing it."
He was released from the hospital on Oct. 25, 1991 and walked from the dugout to throw out the first pitch at a World Series game. It was the first significant distance he covered on his own since the shooting. He wanted to show the shooter, he said, that he hadn't gotten one over on him. The shooter, Army Private Kevin Bivins, was sentenced to 75 years for aggravated robbery in November, 1991. The purse snatcher that Palermo ran down, Jerry Fuller, was sentenced later that month to 15 years for robbery. Today, Palermo walks, haltingly, with a cane.

After the shooting, his hospital room was inundated with flowers and cards, one of them from former President Ronald Reagan, who knew something about getting shot. The players themselves called and stopped by to visit. Palermo has been decorated with dozens of awards. He is a motivational speaker; his most popular speech is titled "Never Admit Defeat." He raises money, lots of it, for the National Paralysis Foundation, among other charities.

"It's something that means a lot to me," he said.

Even at age 13, Palermo was never afraid to make a call. He umpired Little League growing up in Oxford, Mass., the heart of Red Sox country. His father, Vincent, was a big fan but Steve saw a larger picture. He was 20 when a family friend and a scout saw him umpiring an All-Star game. Six years later, Palermo and the Toronto Blue Jays both participated in their first major-league game on a cold Canadian night.

Palermo was the umpire's umpire. He sat in judgment, but even as the final arbiter somehow managed to command the respect of both combatants. He was the one who called Dave Righetti's Fourth of July no-hitter, the one who was behind the plate for Bucky Dent's home run against his father's beloved Red Sox. He worked the World Series.

Today, he serves as one of Major League Baseball's four umpire supervisors. Does he miss the adrenaline rush of on-field action?

"Oh, yeah," he said softly. "There's no comparison. This is all clerical stuff. You try to tutor, instruct and supervise. As an umpire, you're flat-out doing it. There are light years between those two projects."

Spreading the word
Palermo's life is as busy as it has ever been -- busier, actually. On Thursday, he went for therapy, where an ESPN crew filmed him for an anniversary feature. Then it was home for a conference call concerning umpire business followed by more interviews.

He does it, he says, to get the word out, to inspire others that hope is not always lost. In the small, closed world of sports paralysis, Palermo has become a lightening rod of sorts. When Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas was injured in a car accident in January, 2000, the phone rang off the hook.

"I guess if you want to know what it's like to walk on the moon, you call Neil Armstrong," Palermo said at the time. "You call 1-800-NEIL ARMSTRONG. And if you want to know what it's like to go through something like this, well, I guess you call me."

Ten days ago, a prominent Cleveland Indians player called from the visiting clubhouse at the Harry S. Truman Sports complex. He was scared, looking for information and some perspective. His 16-year-old nephew was injured in a diving accident and may never have the use of his four limbs. Palermo did his best to educate and comfort him.

At 7:30 a.m. on Thursday, before he left for his regular therapy appointment, Palermo received another difficult call. It was Conrad Dobler, the former combative guard for the St. Louis Cardinals. His wife, Joy, fell out of a hammock two feet off the ground and was scheduled to have surgery that day.

"Everybody is vulnerable," Palermo said, "and it can happen to anybody at any point in time."

Palermo's crusade is not merely limited to the world at-large. One of his little projects is actually between the lines. And baseball fans should thank him, every day.

When baseball asked him six years ago how to fix its increasingly bloated, numbing game, Palermo had a back-to-the-future thought: Fix the strike zone. It's hard to pin down the exact time, but somewhere along the line, umpires stopped calling strikes at or slightly above the belt. Palermo's theory is that the letter-high pitch became so lethal for pitchers that, predictably, in their evolution they stopped throwing it. Umpires saw so many low pitches (primarily, split-fingered fastballs and sliders), their mental strike zones dropped down, too. When they crouched behind the plate, if the ball was in their eyes, it must have been an accident and, thus, a ball.

Palermo has always believed that a strike is a strike, even if it's slightly above the waist.

"If you call the high strike, baseball immediately becomes a more action-packed game," Palermo said. "Pitchers are throwing strikes, hitters are swinging, you're putting the ball in play sooner. You have a tidier game. There aren't as many walks. There aren't as many 3-2 counts.

"It's crazy, we're in this Nintendo world, where everything is moving faster and faster. Except baseball. Baseball just keeps getting slower and slower."

Finally, with the backing of commissioner Bud Selig, Palermo has the authority to enforce the high strike. This year, umpires have been instructed to call strikes five inches above the belt.

"It has been a fight," Palermo said. "Managers don't like it because they know they have to protect their players. And umpires don't like it because they know it means more abuse. And the players' union? It just goes on and on.

"People keep saying 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' But it is broke, to a certain extent. This is going to make the game so much healthier."

Said Ralph Nelson, baseball's vice president of umpiring, "He's done a great job for us. He doesn't let you know about his disability.

"Unlike our other supervisors when he goes to a game, he doesn't just talk to the umpires, he talks to the managers, the coaches and some of the players. He is so passionate about the game and what we're trying to do."

Somehow, the clichés don't sound like clichés when they come from Steve Palermo. They sound like brand-new truths, which, of course, they are.

"The grass blades are greener," Palermo said, "the sky is a lot bluer, the sun is a lot brighter. You understand how fragile life is. You learn that you have to live life for today."

Considering the price he has had to pay, after all the pain and the suffering, would he do it again? If he was sitting in a restaurant today and the early morning alarm was raised again, would he grab his cane and lurch out into the street?

Incredibly, he could find himself in that whole scenario all over again. The Houston Astros are in town for a weekend set against the Kansas City Royals.

"Hopefully, I'll be home in bed," Palermo said. "But we could be out at that time. Every year, when it comes, it's a very difficult day. I have 364 days of the year to reflect on it, but it's always worse on the anniversary -- and this is a big one."

So, would he do it again?

"If you don't, you admit it was a mistake in the first place," Palermo said. "And it wasn't a mistake. We weren't in the wrong place at wrong time, those guys robbing and mugging those women were in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Palermo laughs a short, bitter laugh.

"It's hard to believe it's a mistake when everything you've always learned says it's the right thing to do," he said. "There's no second thoughts -- none."

Greg Garber is a Senior Writer at

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