JULY 6, 1992
When a bullet struck his vertebrae and left him paralyzed 10 years ago, umpire Steve Palermo vowed that he would not only walk again but also one day crouch behind home plate. Palermo is walking now, as well as serving as a supervisor of umpires for the major leagues. When discussing his second promise, however, the normally garrulous Palermo falls silent before acknowledging that he probably won't be able to keep it. "I'd like to be back out on the field, even to work the plate for just one game," he says, "but I'm not going to cheat the game or the profession. My condition hasn't improved in three or four years, so barring a scientific breakthrough, this might be as good as it gets."
Palermo was 26 years old when he entered the big leagues in 1977, and he quickly earned a reputation as a gifted ball-and-strike umpire. He called Dave Righetti's no-hitter in 1983, as well as the final game of the World Series later that year. At about 1 a.m. on July 7,1991, a few hours after working third base at an Angels-Rangers game, Palermo was dining with friends at a Dallas restaurant. When he heard that two waitresses were being attacked outside, he and five other men rushed to their aid. Palermo was shot in the back, and the bullet frayed the bundle of nerves at the base of his spine. After six weeks of treatment he began to regain the use of his legs, and for the next seven years he underwent physical therapy on an almost daily basis. Today he walks with a cane, and the pain in his back, hips, hamstrings and calves never goes away. "If I can get up, go play golf, do things with my wife, go to a movie, go out to dinner, that's a super day," says Palermo, 52, who's planning to build a new house near his current residence in Overland Park, Kans.
Since 1994 one of Palermo's duties for baseball has been to find ways to pick up the pace of games. Last season his six-year-old recommendation that umpires call strikes about five inches above the waist, as opposed to at the belt, was adopted. He also scouts the minors for umpiring prospects.
So many times people have asked him if he regrets running out of that restaurant. His answer is always the same: It's never a mistake to help someone in trouble. Palermo believes the real hero in the family is his wife, Debbie, who was a 28-year-old bride of five months when he was shot. "Behind closed doors you don't know how many tears have been shed, but there's a time when you pull yourself up and say, 'O.K., here's what we're going to do,' " says Palermo. "I am a survivor."