Love of baseball sustained Palermo

May 14th, 2017

Sometimes, when there was a quiet moment, I would ask Stevie to tell the Bucky Dent story again. There weren't too many quiet moments between us. There was always family to talk about, life to talk about, mostly baseball to talk about. But now and again, I'd ask, and Steve Palermo would smile, and say, "Come on, how many times you want me to tell that same thing?"

And then Stevie would smile again and begin.

He was still a kid when the Bucky Dent thing happened, a week shy of his 29th birthday. And he was a big league umpire. Stevie had been a big league umpire for two full seasons, but even then he was not sure how a kid from Worcester, Mass., could end up standing on the field at Fenway Park. That was a crazy story, too. Palermo was 20, and he was umpiring a local game when, fatefully, a family friend who did some umpire scouting saw him in action.

"Hey Stevie," the friend said, "you ever thought about becoming a big league umpire?"

"Every minute of every day," Stevie said.

Lord, Stevie loved baseball. He didn't love it like you or I do, like fans do. He loved it from the inside. He loved the order of baseball, the rules, the balance. For the better part of 15 seasons, from 1977-91, Steve Palermo was as good as umpiring gets. His particular skill was calling balls and strikes; nobody did that better. Stevie studied the strike zone the way Rod Carew studied hitting, the way Jim Palmer studied pitching, the way his nemesis Earl Weaver studied the game.

Nemesis? Oh yeah. Steve called Weaver "That little …" with various choice words following. Stevie tossed Weaver twice in a week in 1979, once over a balk call he made, and two days later for a balk he didn't make. Tossed him again a year later. Stevie used to say, "That little … called me names that would get a man killed in other places. And that was on days I didn't throw him out."

Stevie so loved it all, loved the life, loved the relationships, loved the travel, even loved the arguments.

"Someday, you'll get a real job, right?" his mother Angela used to say to him.

"Sure 'Ma," he would say. But he didn't mean it.

Heck, he even met his wife Debbie on the road -- at a Checkers restaurant in Kansas City.

"Who you going out with?" Debbie Aaron's brother Steve asked.

"An umpire," she said.

"I hope it wasn't the second-base umpire who blew two calls last night," he said.

It was. They were married before the 1991 baseball season. That horrible baseball season.

Everything changed on July 6, 1991. Everything went dark. It was a Saturday. Stevie was in Texas; he had worked third base for the game between the Angels and the Rangers. It had been an easy game, no close plays at third, and Stevie was with the gang at Campisi's Egyptian, a famous local Italian joint where Jack Ruby used to hang out. It seemed like another night in a charmed life. And then the bartender, a guy named Jimmy Upton, yelled out, "Two waitresses are getting mugged across the street!"

Of course, they all ran out to help, Stevie among them. The scene was a blur. Stevie chased after one of the muggers, who was running away. He and a friend caught the mugger and held him down, when a car pulled around corner. Then there were gunshots. Stevie didn't feel the bullet hit his back. He felt his legs go numb.

The doctors told him he would never walk again, but they were wrong. They had to be wrong. The journey to that first step was agonizing, all but unbearable.

"Inch by inch, life is a cinch," Debbie would say to him when the pain came in.

They clung to that funny little rhyme, clung to it like it was a raft in a vast ocean. Sometimes after a bad day, Stevie would cry at night, not so much in pain, but in frustration and rage because the doctors couldn't be right.

"Inch by inch, life is a cinch," they would repeat to each other.

Inch by inch, he came back. Inch by inch, he began walking with crutches. Then with a cane. He threw out the first pitch at the World Series. He was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He was featured on television. He received countless letters of love. He was an American hero.

He would have traded in all of it, every single bit of it, to umpire just one more game.

Stevie sometimes dreamed of it, umpiring just one more game. But that was just beyond his reach. He stayed in baseball, served as an umpire supervisor, worked behind the scenes on numerous initiatives. And he raised money, millions of dollars, for the National Paralysis Foundation. More than that, he somehow made everyone around him laugh, feel better about themselves. I saw it countless times.

And when I would ask Stevie how he was doing, really doing, he did not want to talk about that.

"How's your family?" he would immediately say.

"What do you think of ?" he would immediately say.

We did talk once about it, one raw day, he talked about how everyone kept asking him if, knowing what he came to know, he would still go out into that Texas night on July 6, 1991.

"I would do it again," he said. And he paused.

"Two reasons," he said, breaking it down with an umpire's precision. "One, if my wife was in that situation, I would hope four or five guys would come to her defense. I have to believe that."


"Two," he said, "if I say no, I wouldn't do it again, then what does that mean?"


"It means I made a mistake. I just can't admit it was a mistake."

A final pause.

"I went to help people in trouble," he said. "How can that be a mistake?"

Steve Palermo died Sunday. He was 67 years old. I saw him not too long ago, and I asked him to tell the Bucky Dent story again. And so, of course, he smiled and told the story. Stevie was working third base during the 1978 American League East tiebreaker game between the Red Sox and the Yankees. Palermo, as mentioned, had grown up in nearby Worcester. He grew up in a Red Sox family; heck his Sawx lineage went back more or less to the days the Sawx traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees.

Well, you know the story of that game. The Sox led 2-0 going into the seventh, and the Yankees' Bucky Dent -- no power Bucky Dent, choking-up-5-inches-on-the-bat Bucky Dent -- popped a three-run homer over the Green Monster in left. Steve Palermo was the umpire who called it a fair ball and made the home run sign.

Not long after, Stevie saw his father Vincent. Stevie noticed his Dad acting cold toward him.

"What's the matter, Pops?" he asked.

"What," Vincent blurted out, "you couldn't have called that ball foul?"

"It was like 20 feet fair," Stevie said.

At which point Vincent Palermo said the one word that made Stevie and I crack up every day. He said: "So?"