Friday, May 19, 2017

Courage, Diligence, Wit, Grace

By Jeff Kallman

Baseball celebrated the retirement of Derek Jeter's Yankee uniform number on the same Mother's Day during which Steve Palermo finally lost a battle with cancer at 67. Something doesn't seem right about that.

Palermo — the umpire shot trying to help two waitresses under attack outside a Dallas restaurant in 1991, leaving him temporarily waist-down paralyzed and forcing him to retire as an active umpire — loved the game and its meanings almost as much as he loved life.

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The young man who worked third base and called fair Bucky (Bleeping) Dent's single-game 1978 American League East playoff home run in Fenway Park would have observed and applauded Jeter's amiable dignity now, accepting the honor of being the reason the last single-digit Yankee uniform number was retired, and applauded. Even if Palermo grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts, rooting for the Red Sox.

That wouldn't be the last time he had to do his job at the expense of the Red Sox: it was Palermo calling balls and strikes when Yankee left-hander Dave Righetti no-hit the Red Sox on the Fourth of July, 1983. More than a particular team, though, Palermo loved the game itself played right, and wasn't averse to giving a rookie a boost if he thought it was needed.

In 1988, Palermo was the scheduled home plate umpire when he noticed the young Orioles starter preparing to face a formidable team of Red Sox. He walked to the mound and handed the kid a fresh baseball. "You just get that first pitch close, I'll call it a strike," Palermo said encouragingly. "And then we'll get this game going." Palermo kept his promise. You can look it up: the first major league pitch Curt Schilling ever threw, to Wade Boggs, a Hall of Famer to be, was a called strike.

"Palermo, a slender 6 feet 2, was mobile and graceful," wrote George F. Will during spring training 1992. "Because he is determined to be so again, his spring training began last July, when he could move only two toes on his right foot. Three months later the world watched him walk. In last October's humdinger of a World Series, one of the most stirring moments occurred before the first batter stepped in, when Palermo walked, with the help of hand crutches and leg braces, to the Metrodome mound to flip the ceremonial first pitch. Today canes have replaced the crutches and one brace has been put away. Some April — not this one, but there is one every year — Palermo may be back where he belongs, looking at pitches from the other end of the delivery. He is still many inches away, but they are all just inches."

He got the next best thing, being named a supervisor of umpires by baseball government. It could not have been a simple job for him, a man of uncommon forthrightness overseeing men who are not always as forthright or as diligent as he was on the field.

Will told the story that an old umpire once told Palermo, when the latter was a young pup, that "even a good umpire" is liable to miss twelve pitch calls out of 260 pitches. "Twelve a month," Will cited Palermo as replying, "would be intolerable."

A long standing major league umpire, Tim Welke, tells the Los Angeles Times, "He would say, 'If you got to bark at someone, know more than that manager or player is hearing it. There are guys in both dugouts watching and listening, and they'll remember that.'"

Palermo was married five months when he had the late evening's dinner that changed his life. He and his companions saw the two waitresses whose evening's work just ended attacked in the parking lot. They went out to help, chasing down and catching one of the attackers, when three more arrived and five shots were fired. One bullet hit Palermo in the torso, grazed a kidney, broke a vertebra, frayed enough of his spinal cord.

That was all that bullet could fray. The shooter was sentenced to seventy-five years in the calaboose. He couldn't sentence Palermo — a man who'd say only, "I went to help people in trouble. How can that be a mistake?" about that night — to a life of resignation.

Royals manager Ned Yost was a backup catcher during part of Palermo's umpiring career. Palermo settled in Kansas City in due course and visited Kauffmann Stadium frequently, being welcomed into the Royals' inner sanctum where he loved talking the game.

"As a catcher, some umpires are horrible to work in front of. They don't want to talk. Steve was always good about being able to talk and discuss pitches," Yost says. "If you thought it was a strike, he would always engage. After the accident that left him paralyzed, he worked so hard to get back. He was a huge resource for us here for umpire things. We would see Steve all the time. He's just a class guy, somebody we're going to really, really miss."

That's said about a man who was once engaged by Lou Piniella, then a Yankee outfielder, over a strike call: "Where was that pitch at?" Palermo suggested a Yankee in front of thirty thousand people had no business ending a sentence with a preposition. "OK," Piniella shot back, "where was that pitch at, asshole?" Perhaps umpires aren't properly equipped to levy the syntax.

It's not that even an umpire as agreeable and intelligent as Palermo could avoid occasional ugliness. Even he had to contend with the human slings and arrows machine known as Earl Weaver. "That little [expletive] called me names that would get a man killed in other places," he once recalled. "And that was on days I didn't throw him out."

Palermo's appreciation for players who played the game the right ways led to a faith that the most professional players rarely if ever complained about strike or out calls. Unapologetically, he admitted to loving it when he worked first base during Brewers games and Robin Yount got aboard. He loved, Will wrote, "watching Yount on the base paths doing the small things right, the things seen only by the game's initiates."

The challenge, Palermo believed, was trying to do what human imperfection rejects, getting everything right. This umpire got more right than wrong in baseball and an awful lot more than that right in life. Especially, he got marriage right. Whenever the pain got the better of him, which couldn't have been too often considering his spirit, she'd remind him, "Inch by inch, life is a cinch."

Debbie Aaron Palermo met her future husband when he happened into a Checker's restaurant in Kansas City. Her brother, Steve, asked her with whom she was going out. "An umpire," she replied. Steve Aaron didn't skip a beat: "I hope it wasn't the second base umpire who blew two calls last night."

Palermo — who also spent the years following the shooting raising millions for the National Paralysis Foundation, when he wasn't fielding and answering thousands of letters of love and hope — wanted only one thing more from life. He wanted to umpire one more game. For a man who balanced dignity and diligence with wit and grace, that should not be considered an unreasonable wish.

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