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.