In the game of life, former umpire Palermo has been called out to inspire others


April 30, 1993|By John Steadman

Every day Steve Palermo knows pain and trauma but never recrimination or self-pity. He is a true, honest-to-God hero. Revere the name. His presence creates a feeling of awe within those around him. This is a man of courage and, of course, the kind of character that carries a glorious, even mystical, wonder.

To his profound credit and unwavering religious beliefs, Palermo doesn't look to the heavens searching for an answer and asking, "Why me, Lord?" He accepts the burden put upon him in this modern sequel to the Good Samaritan, wronged while on a mission of mercy.

It was Palermo, having dinner in an Arlington, Texas, restaurant, who reacted to a woman being robbed by street hoodlums on a summer night in 1991. He responded to the call as a responsible citizen without regard to personal danger.

What happened next was a blast of gunfire. The bullet frayed his spinal cord. Steve Palermo's life will never be the same. There was paralysis from the neck down. The condition was fully assessed and rehabilitation continues.

The best of medical minds examine the reports of progress, however slow. They show him ways to get other muscles, not used to doing the work as those damaged, to compensate for the part of his delicate ambulatory network torn apart by the slug.

Palermo, 41, was injured before he even reached the peak years of a career that sparkled in accomplishment and offered so much promise for the future.

He had all the umpiring requirements, including the most important of all qualities inherent to the demands of the job: an exacting awareness of the rulebook and how it must be interpreted while still being tolerant of players who too often turn on an umpire to cover up for their own shortcomings.

Palermo knew it was a human defense to alibi and direct the blame for failure upon someone else -- game official making the call.

The umpiring community, in general, is made up of men interested in extending themselves to the maximum. They play a demanding role that places such a high premium on knowledge, accuracy, immediate decision-making and yet, all the while, they must fade into the background of anonymity.

They are not to be the show. Instead, the objective is to relegate themselves to having nothing more to do than rendering an opinion of the play evolving on the field.

The accident to Palermo has brought an awareness of an important personal priority, one he can't even define with words. And this is the beauty to be found in the blessings that come from the love of a woman, as exists with his wife, Debbie, who won't let him feel sorry for himself and continues to tell Steve, "The fight is just starting."

She chases away the blues, is a constant purveyor of hope and encouragement. Never once, despite the early hospitalization, when it was all touch and go, through endless treatments, braces, crutches, canes and the difficulty in being able to move, has Palermo told himself he "shouldn't have done it."

Palermo was here last night to make the ceremonial first pitch at the Orioles-Twins game and he listened to the kind of cheers an umpire never hears, unless he's dealing with misfortune.

When the man with a soft smile, once known as the best-throwing umpire in the major leagues because of the way he rapidly threw a baseball to the pitcher, talks about other things that are important, he mentions his religion.

"No, I haven't asked God for help," he says. "God has enough things to worry about. There's a reason for everything in this world. Debbie and I believe God has certain designs on what you do. Maybe he's using me as a messenger of some kind."

When others are confronted with serious injuries, and Steve hears about them, he calls to provide a positive influence. It was that way when Mike Utley of the Detroit Lions was hurt and when Kimberlie Patek, the daughter of the former Kansas City Royals DTC shortstop, was severely injured in an auto accident.

He says, regardless of how rigid his limited physical movements might be, the goal he covets is to umpire again. It's not all that important because the man showed the world what he was made of when he lent assistance to a defenseless woman and, in turn, paid a price that could never be justified.

Steve Palermo represents the best of the human spirit.

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