Despite trauma, Palermo knows he made right call

May 06, 1994|By John Steadman

That Steve Palermo responded to the call of trouble didn't cause him even a remote reason to ponder the circumstance. Vigilance and courage signaled his attention. Go help. He did.

There were two waitresses being robbed that July night in 1991 on the parking lot outside a Dallas restaurant and he had no time for asking questions. Rush to them as quickly as possible. Drive off the attackers. Lend assistance. Do what had to be done.

He was doing precisely that when he took a shot in the back from a hoodlum's gun. A flash of fire. Then pain. Paralysis. Trauma.

Now Steve Palermo, 43 -- in the prime of life, smart, articulate and endowed with gentlemanly qualities -- requires assistance, be it from crutches, a cane, family or friends, to get where he's going. Still, he has yet to express anger over what has been taken away from him.

Palermo was one of the most competent of major-league umpires and often, when he threw a new ball back to the pitcher, it was with more velocity than some of them were generating from the mound.

Tonight, in a different time and place, with music playing and friends enjoying levity and libations, he will be saluted at the Martin's West Banquet Hall during the 49th annual dinner of Baltimore's Italian American Association, a group that has made a career out of good deeds and enormous charitable contributions. The audience will come to its feet to applaud Steve and, in a collective way, let him know what this all-star for humanity means to all of us.

In an era when violent crime is threatening to crumble cities and erode society in all parts of the country, it remained for Citizen Palermo to stand up and be counted, yet he's paying dearly for the heroic sacrifice of lending assistance to victims being violated. It all seems so unfair.

Steve doesn't slump in a chair and ponder his physical problems. He intends to umpire again, not just a cameo appearance, but to work behind the plate or on the bases, the way it used to be. That he might be a step slower or have difficulty bending doesn't concern him. The challenge is there as he pursues the long rehabilitation.

He expects, fighting the odds, to return to the field. Don't try to tell him that he can't. Palermo has no quit in him. Nor does his wife and constant companion, Debbie, who has held his hand both physically and mentally as they battle the problems the injury has inflicted.

There's nothing wrong with his judgment, perception or knowledge of the rules. In an interview, he was asked if he ever xTC

second-guessed himself or that maybe he hadn't made the right call when destiny placed Steve Palermo near the scene of the action and then right in the middle of it?

"No," he answers. "Look at what those people did in Los Angeles to help that truck driver [referring to an innocent man being beaten in the street in the aftermath of the Rodney King incident]. We're just civilized people who think there's got to be a better way than going out with carelessness and recklessness and abandon and taking for granted that you can take whatever you want."

It was Palermo who was taken away in an ambulance that summer night in Dallas, being deprived of his balance and agility as a result of the spinal injury. He attests to a strong belief in the Almighty Power.

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

And about the loyalty of his wife, he adds, "I wouldn't have been able to get through this without her. She's not a phony optimist. She's a realistic optimist."

The medical prognosis, early on, wasn't definitive because the doctors didn't know. And, of course, they weren't able to measure the depth of Palermo's determination to succeed. Every spinal injury is different. Now some mobility has indeed come back, and this is a plus.

But don't ever put limitations on Steve Palermo, even if the progress is slow to be measured. He's quietly tough, at his best when collars tighten and the pressure makes it difficult to breathe. That was his way as an umpire but, more importantly, he personifies all the best of what the human spirit embodies in character and decency.

There was his unrestrained willingness to do good for others -- even if he became the innocent victim, paying a severe price for fulfilling the role of the Good Samaritan. Steve Palermo deserves all the attention and respect a grateful country and its citizenry can bestow.

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