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Pain and Progress
Bruce Newman
July 06, 1992
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
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July 06, 1992

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

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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.' "

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