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."