MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Palermo's impact extended beyond diamond

Former umpire remembered for heroics, kind demeanor

Palermo's impact extended beyond diamond

Steve Palermo loved life, even in his final days, even when he was clinging to each remaining breath in his battle with the cancer that led to the former big league umpire's death on Sunday.

It was apparent it was a struggle. Palermo didn't make it to Spring Training this year. But it wasn't his choice. In a mid-February call to make sure we would get together in Arizona to talk about his wife's hope that we do a book together, he mentioned the doctors had him on hold because of his battle, but he said he'd be there.

"You can count on that," Palermo said.

But Palermo never made it to Arizona. Determined as he was in life, he met a hurdle he couldn't get past. Cancer.

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It's not that he didn't try. Palermo didn't give up easy. The fact he was still working for Major League Baseball as a supervisor of umpires showed his will and determination.

Selected as the No. 1 umpire in baseball prior to the 1991 season, Palermo, in his 15th big league season, was having a postgame meal at favorite Dallas restaurant with the other members of his umpiring crew and a few friends.

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"We are winding up, and all of a sudden, one of the boys hollered out that two of the waitresses who just left were getting beaten up on the main street outside the restaurant," Palermo said. "We ran outside to help the women and saw three men beating and mugging and pushing their heads into the pavement. It was a horrific scene."

The muggers saw the men coming out of the restaurant and took off, but one got disoriented and went the wrong way.

"We end up catching him about three-quarters of a mile down the street," said Palermo. "[I] had him on the ground. ... While we were waiting for the police, this car [with the other muggers] pulled up and someone got out on the passenger side, pulled out a .32 caliber pistol and fired five shots.

"The fifth bullet hit me waist high. Tore a path through my body. It bounced off my kidney, went toward my abdomen, then went straight back and hit my spinal cord. Instantly, I very slowly melted into the pavement."

Palermo lost feeling in his lower body.

"I looked up at Jimmy Upton [a bartender at the restaurant], and said, 'Jimmy if I die, tell [wife] Debbie that I love her,'" Palermo said. "We'd only been married for five months. Jimmy, in his perfect Texas English, said, 'Stevie, there ain't no dying here tonight.'"

The next morning, Palermo woke up at a Dallas hospital, having undergone the first of what would be many surgeries, and he was told he'd never walk again. He proved the doctors wrong. Palermo did walk again, using crutches at first and later a cane, but walking nonetheless.

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Palermo's memories from the ballpark helped him win the battle.

"In Boston a few years prior to the shooting, there was a little boy down the first-base line," said Palermo, who was working first base that game. "I went over between innings, stole his glove and started walking off to right field with it. He's yelling, 'Dad, Dad! That man stole my glove!'"

Palermo took his position in the field, still holding the glove in which he had put a game ball.

"The next half inning, I walked over to the stands. The glove had the little boy's name on it and I said, 'Is there an Ethan Kerr here? Ethan Kerr.' The kid is jumping up, 'It's me, it's me, it's me!' I handed him the glove and walked away. I could hear him [say], 'Dad there's a baseball in here.'

"The next half inning, I went over to get a drink of water, and Ethan says, 'Mr. Umpire, I bought you a Coke.' I told him I couldn't take it back in the field with me so he'd have to hold it for me and I'd come back between innings. He smiled."

As Palermo told the story, he smiled, clearly knowing where he was heading even if the listener didn't know what that had to do with his being shot.

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"Part of the toughest time for me [in the hospital] was 4:30, 5 o'clock when they brought the mail in," Palermo said. "I had stacks every day and responded to everybody who wrote a card or letter. One day Debbie opened a letter and starting crying. I'm thinking, 'Is this a death threat?' I said, 'What's wrong, honey?' She said, 'You have to read this.'"

Palermo teared up for a moment.

"To paraphrase," Palermo said of the letter, "'Dear Mr. Palermo, I know you don't remember me, but back three or four years ago, you gave me a baseball. I hope you get well. That was a terrible thing that man did to you. I hope you get back on the field so I can come to Fenway Park and see you umpire again.' And at the bottom, 'Love, Ethan Kerr.'"

That was Steve Palermo. He impacted lives by living his life the way life should be lived.

Tracy Ringolsby is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.