Pain and Progress

Last July, American League umpire Steve Palermo was felled by a bullet. After a year of grueling rehabilitation, he holds on to his dream of umpiring again
July 05, 1992

When Steve Palermo was 12 years old, growing up in Oxford, Mass., he promised his father, Vincent, that one day he would make it to the big leagues. "Doesn't every kid say that?" Palermo asks. When he was 20 he was spotted by a major league scout while working as an umpire in a Little League game. Six years later Palermo brought his father along so they could walk down the runway together at Fenway Park in Boston the day he umpired his first big league game.

He was working third base at Fenway in 1978 when the Red Sox and the New York Yankees met in a playoff to decide the American League East champion. It was Palermo who signaled "fair ball" when the Yankees' Bucky Dent hit a fly ball down the leftfield line and into the screen of the Green Monster for a home run. His emphatic call had, for all intents and purposes, ended the Red Sox's season, and after the game his father asked him, "How could you call that thing fair, Stevie?" After all the summer afternoons they had spent together at Fenway, pulling for the Sox—the father, the son and the holy ghost—how could he call it fair?

"Dad," Stevie replied, "it was 20 feet to the right of the pole."

Baseball is just as often a game of 20 feet as it is of inches, and the beauty of it is you never know from one play to the next which it will be. Last summer, on the night of July 6 there were no close calls, not at third base, where Palermo was stationed for the game between the Texas Rangers and the California Angels at Arlington Stadium. Instead, Palermo, known as one of the best ball-and-strike umpires of the modern era, had eased through a quiet night at his corner of the diamond, then headed off to Campisi's Egyptian Restaurant, a popular hangout in Dallas for sports figures that is owned by Palermo's best friend, Corky Campisi.

Palermo was sitting at a corner booth with Campisi and former SMU lineman Terence Mann shortly before 1 a.m. when bartender Jimmy Upton suddenly shouted that two of the restaurant's waitresses—Melinda Henson and Dixie Bristow—were being robbed and beaten in the parking lot. When Palermo and the five other men still in the restaurant burst out the door, the three muggers quickly scattered, two of them in a car and one on foot. Mann and Palermo began to chase the runner.

It was while he was running down the darkened street after someone half his age that Palermo, who is 42, thought, This might not be the smartest thing I've ever done.

The chase ended when Campisi came roaring by in his Jeep, jumped out and brought the mugger down with a clothesline tackle. Mann, who is 6'4" and weighs 280 pounds, held him down while someone went to call the police. Palermo was still catching his breath when a car pulled up, the same car that had fled the scene moments earlier; a man later identified as Kevin Bivins stuck a pistol out the window and started firing. Bivins, who was on furlough from the Army after serving in Desert Storm, fired five times in rapid succession. Palermo thinks it was the last shot that hit him in the back. (In November, Bivins was convicted of aggravated battery and is now serving a 75-year sentence in a Texas prison.)

"It felt like somebody was pouring hot water on my legs," Palermo says. "There was a warm numbness, as if I was a chocolate bar melting into the hot pavement. Then I felt for my legs and they were like two hollow logs. It was like nothing." The bullet had entered his right side, nicking one of Palermo's kidneys and his spinal column. "I thought I had landed on a rock, and I asked Jimmy Upton to get the rock out from under my back and let me roll over," Palermo recalls. "I said, 'Jimmy, I don't know how bad this is. If I die, tell Debbie [Palermo's bride of five months] I love her. And tell my parents I love them too. And my brothers and sisters.' I was telling him who should get my golf clubs when Jimmy said, 'There's going to be no dying here.' "

Mann had been shot three times, in the chin, arm and thigh, but eventually made a near-complete recovery. Palermo was taken to Parkland Memorial Hospital; two days after the shooting, the neurosurgeon who operated on him told his wife and his brother Jimmy that Steve would probably never walk again. Neither one of them wanted to pass along so despairing a prognosis. "You tell him that," Debbie angrily said to the doctor.

"When he talked to me, he tempered everything," Steve says, "but he made it very plain there was little hope, if any. The percentages were minimal."

It has been a year since Palermo was told he would not walk again, a diagnosis that now appears to have been about 20 feet to the left of the pole. It is difficult indeed to win an argument with an umpire, and Palermo is trying to make sure he gets the ump's traditional last word. "I think that's half the reason I'm doing this now," he says, gritting his teeth through another rehab workout. "Just to prove that doctor wrong."

It has been a year taken not by days spent but by inches gained. "There are no numbers on this calendar," Palermo says. "The clock is faceless, with no big hand, no little hand. On July 7th I'll punch the clock, but the clock will keep on running."

Palermo was moved to the Dallas Rehabilitation Institute (DRI) on July 15, eight days after the shooting, and during the three months and 10 days he was there—6½ hours a day, six days a week of the purest torture—he kept a calendar on which he marked off the good days in bright colors, the bad days in black. If he was able to get out of bed and into a wheelchair, spend the 3½ hours it took him to bathe, shave and dress himself, then make it down to therapy, it was a good day. "When I wanted to pull the sheet over my head and bury myself, that was a bad day," Palermo says.

No matter what kind of day it was, Debbie was by his side. "Inch by inch, life's a cinch," she would tell him. "Yard by yard, life is hard." The bullet had frayed the bundle of nerves near the base of his spine, and now they sent jolts of bright pain pulsing through his body. "You just fidget and it's like you're hooked up to an AC-Delco battery," he says. "You feel like you've got jumper cables attached to your knees."

The doctors who know everything that is known about spinal cord injuries believe nerves regenerate at a rate of about a millimeter a day. Sometimes the nerves don't regenerate at all. Millimeter by millimeter, there is no rhyme or reason to life, there is only waiting.

Debbie had a severe case of scoliosis (curvature of the spine) when she was 13, and for a year she had to wear a metal brace that ran from neck to hips. "They said I couldn't be a cheerleader because I couldn't do the splits," she recalls. "Well, I was a cheerleader for four years, and that brace never kept me from doing the splits." It was her grandmother who taught her the rhyme that has sustained her through two crises. "I've always liked sayings," Debbie says, "because they help explain things that can't be explained."

"The body does things there's no explanation for," says Steve. "I was on a treadmill one day in Dallas, and I asked the therapist why my foot kept coming down the way it did, with the toe pointed down. She said, 'Why does your foot come down like that? I don't even know why you're walking with the level of injury you have and the muscle damage you've had.' Neurologically, I shouldn't be able to walk as well as I can. They don't know much about this stuff. All these specialists, and they just don't know."

No one is certain even now of the extent of Palermo's nerve damage. Had the .32-caliber bullet that tore through his spine been a single millimeter larger, he is told, it would have severed an artery and he would have bled to death. Had he not been bent over precisely as he was, doctors say, the bullet would have shattered his spine and he would have been in a wheelchair for life. But the truth is, they just don't know. "They don't know whether the bullet cut those three nerves," Palermo says, "or whether the heat of the blast caused them to swell."

Palermo doesn't know either. "I hate going out now," he says. "People ask the same question over and over: 'How's it coming?' And I tell them it's coming. But I don't know if it is coming. I don't get discouraged as much as frustrated. You don't have any control. You do the work and then wait and see if it pays off, but you never know if it will.

"Your body fights with your mind, like you're constantly dueling with a ghost. The mind tells it what to do, but the body won't listen. I don't know if my foot will hold steady. I don't know if my leg will stay stiff and support my body. And when those things do come, they're never good enough because they never come fast enough."

Palermo returned to his room at the Dallas Rehabilitation Institute at 4:30 every afternoon slumped over in his wheelchair from exhaustion. "It physically beats you down," he says. "But every day when I got back to my room, the letters would be there waiting." So many letters and telegrams from well-wishers poured into DRI that Palermo was able to completely paper his walls with them. During the first few months after the shooting, the pain in his legs was so intense that it woke him up repeatedly during the night. Often he would turn on the light in his room and see the handwriting on the wall. "If I can't make it back for myself," he would tell himself as he drifted off to sleep, "I'm going to make it back for all these people."

Who among us can ever really know how much we are liked or admired while we are alive to enjoy it? And how many umpires can, for goodness sake? Like Tom Sawyer attending his own funeral, Palermo was startled to learn that so many people cared. "They say you're lucky if you can count your friends on more than one hand," he says. "I need a lot of hands."

For a while it seemed he would get a hand whenever he left the institute. One night during his final month of rehabilitation in Dallas, he and Debbie went out for dinner; after they entered the restaurant, people suddenly started to applaud, then rose to their feet and continued to cheer. Palermo wanted to turn and run, then remembered he had braces on both legs and was walking with crutches. "I've been running away from recognition all of my professional life," he says. "I never wanted to be recognized for what I did."

This was not entirely a matter of modesty, for it is a maxim of umpiring that when an ump goes unnoticed, it means he has done his job well. "The cheering and the clapping for me stopped 21 years ago when I became an umpire," he says. "This [adulation] goes against everything that's been ingrained in me. I'm used to people threatening me, not clapping for me."

At the end of August, Palermo was asked to appear at a press conference to publicly answer questions about the shooting for the first time. It came as no surprise to him when many of the questions that day centered on how Palermo felt about being a hero. It did surprise him, however, when reporters stood and applauded him after the session.

Palermo has seen himself transformed in the public eye from a man whose only disability was presumed to be occasional occupational blindness to a man who is some kind of hero riding out of Texas on a gleaming white wheelchair. It is an image that makes him cringe. "All that hero talk, that's bull," he says. "Hero is a word I don't wear well. There were six guys who did what I did that night, and none of us went out that door trying to make our mark as heroes. What about the four guys who didn't get shot? I guess they're smart heroes."

Palermo had heroes of his own while he was learning to walk again at the rehab center. His sudden separation from the game had made it too painful for him to watch baseball on TV—until, that is, he started to get regular visits from two of his fellow rehab patients, eight-year-old Cody Edmonson and 11-year-old Mitchell Wentling, who sneaked out of the pediatrics ward to see the umpire who got shot. "They'd climb in bed with me, and then the nurses would bring them ice cream and cookies," Palermo says. "What could I do? They'd flip on a game and start asking me about the players. Then after the game they'd take off, and I'd be sleeping in ice cream and crumbs."

The boys had suffered head injuries so severe that neither had been expected to survive. They survived. Doctors said Cody, whose foot had gotten caught in a stirrup while he was calf-roping, wouldn't live through the first night. He remained in a coma for several days. "Cody talked in this very slow Texas drawl that was even slower after the accident," Palermo says, "but on him it sounded good. He would say, 'Wheeerrre youuuu gooooin', Steeeeve?' when I was taking my baby steps on the treadmill. Cody always wanted to race me." It was during his races with an eight-year-old that Palermo's competitive juices began to stir again.

"As good as Stevie was for those kids," Debbie says, "they were better for him." Mitchell, who had been hit by a car while riding his bike, would cruise around the hospital in his wheelchair, always wearing an Oakland A's cap that manager Tony La Russa had sent to Palermo. He loved the cap so much that he insisted on wearing it during an outing to a Rangers game at Arlington Stadium. "I told him," Palermo says, " 'Mitch, bad move. This is Rangers country. You're going to get another head injury.' " He wore the hat.

During his stay at DRI, Palermo had grown accustomed to seeing a five-year-old boy named Jonathan every day. "And then one day he wasn't there anymore," Palermo says. "I asked what happened to him, and they said his insurance had run out. I said, 'A five-year-old boy with a head injury can't stay here because he has no insurance? That's crazy.' "

The Palermos decided to try do something for future Jonathans. They organized a benefit auction of baseball memorabilia and autographs; on the afternoon of Oct. 5, virtually all the players from the Rangers and the A's pitched in and helped raise $125,000, which was used as seed money to start the Steve Palermo Foundation for Spinal Cord Injuries.

That night Palermo walked, with crutches, onto the field at Arlington Stadium with his former regular umpiring crew; as he went to home plate to collect the lineup cards, he was given a lengthy standing ovation.

Palermo threw out the first pitch at the World Series last fall—a reminder to himself of how far he had come in three months—then went home to Overland Park, Kans., and resumed his workouts at the Mid-America Rehabilitation Hospital. Last month his recovery had progressed to the point where his doctor suggested that he reduce his rehab schedule from five days a week to three, that it was time for him to get on with his life. "But how are you supposed get back to the real world?" Palermo asks. "What is the real world? My world was umpiring baseball games, but that's gone now, and so the world changes. Something like this just devastates your life."

Still, the signs of progress are real, even tangible. He has kept the hip-to-toe metal brace that he wore on his left leg in Dallas when he made his first tottering steps. "We haven't figured out what we're going to do with it yet," he says. "We might put it in the front yard and make a planter out of it."

Now his rehab days begin at 9 a.m. in a pool heated to 94°; there he works with therapists he describes as "terrorists," who help him stretch and strengthen the muscles in his legs. By 10:30 a.m. he is in the gym, walking between parallel bars, his fingertips gliding over the wooden railings as he places his right foot in front of the left, heel to toe, seven steps. He stops to think, then turns and walks the seven paces back again. This time only the backs of his hands make contact with the railings. "You used to white-knuckle those bars," therapist Bobbi Arp tells him. After a few minutes of this, Palermo emerges from the parallel bars aided only by a cane.

This is a place where real miracles happen, not ballpark-variety miracles and not by the laying on of hands. Eight months ago Palermo couldn't raise his legs an inch while lying on his back. Now, with his fists doubled at his side and his face contorted with effort, the right foot rises six inches. The left, however, still scarcely moves, and he says his knees and ankles feel as if they are in a constant viselike grip because the nerves are firing all the time. He is acutely aware now of where all the nerves and muscles in his legs are.

In the afternoon, he does exercises to strengthen his back, which was strained long before the shooting by years of leaning over catchers' shoulders. It is the back injury, he says, that may have slowed his progress, delaying him, perhaps, from turning his crutches into some new form of lawn sculpture.

When Lou Piniella was playing for the New York Yankees, he once challenged Palermo on a called strike. "Where was that pitch at?" Piniella asked defiantly. Palermo replied that a man playing in Yankee Stadium, who was ennobled by the same pinstripes worn by Ruth and DiMaggio, should know better than to end a sentence with a preposition. "O.K.," Piniella countered. "Where was that pitch at, asshole?"

Palermo always understood that it was how an umpire responded during baseball's ongoing Socratic exchanges that gave him his moral weight. "Baseball is a game of questions and answers," former umpire Nestor Chylak once told Palermo. "They're going to have the questions, and you'd better have the answers."

There are more questions than ever now, but Palermo still believes he has the answers. He will be back, if not this year, then next. "It's not denial if you're right," he says. "If not next year, then the one after that." There are no numbers on his calendar now, only inches marked off in the colors of a rainbow, its arc rising and the end still not in sight.

PHOTOBUCK MILLERPalermo, helped by therapists like Deanna Markley, has defied the early prognosis. PHOTOPHIL HUBERGathered at the scene of the crime are (from left) Henson, Upton, Bristow and Campisi. PHOTOAPBefore the shooting Palermo (here in 1989) was rated one of the best umps in the game. PHOTOJUAN GARCIA/THE DALLAS MORNING NEWSMann (right) was hit three times but recovered; Palermo was crippled by a single shot. TWO PHOTOSBUCK MILLERExhausting pool therapy brings progress, but the pain in Palermo's legs is unrelenting. PHOTOIRWIN THOMPSON/THE DALLAS MORNING NEWSThroughout the long ordeal Debbie has been a source of inspiration for her husband.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)