On Oct. 2, 1978, the Yankees and Red Sox played one game to determine the winner of the American League’s East Division. The Sox and Yanks had finished with identical 99-63 records and one game would determine which team would go on.
That day the third-base umpire was a young man named Steve Palermo.
In the seventh inning, with the score 2-0 Sox, Bucky Dent hit a three-run homer to give the Yankees a lead they would never give back.
It was Steve’s job to signal that Dent’s home run was fair.
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Steve was from Worcester, Mass., and he brought his dad along to the game that day and afterward they were sharing an uncomfortably silent ride home. Steve wasn’t sure what the problem was until his dad turned to him and said:
“You couldn’t have called it foul?”
I know that story because Steve Palermo spent a lot of time in the Kauffman Stadium press box and sat a few chairs down from me.
After Steve’s on-field career ended, he worked as an umpire supervisor and was our go-to guy in the Kansas City press box; anytime there was a controversial ruling on the field, you’d see reporters come to Steve for an explanation.
I can’t tell you how many times I walked over to ask Steve a single question and wound up watching several innings with him; he’d start telling stories and I was hooked.
And Steve was a master storyteller; he had impeccable comic timing and could sell a punchline with a pause and a look.
That’s what I’ll miss the most; those hours and hours of Steve Palermo stories.
Palermo’s death was announced Sunday by Major League Baseball. He was 67.
I don’t clearly remember the last time I saw him, but it was probably about the eighth inning of some Royals home game. Steve would leave early to beat the crowd, but always come by to say good night.
In baseball, they don’t usually don’t make a huge thing about goodbyes.
I once asked a player why baseball goodbyes were so low key and he said it was because in baseball they had to say goodbye so often. “See you next spring” and “travel safe” are about as emotional as some baseball goodbyes get. When a guy walks out the door, you always assume you’ll see him again.
But sometimes a guy walks out the door and never comes back.
We got the news about Steve’s death in the middle of Sunday’s ballgame, and now I know there won’t be any more Steve Palermo stories. Now every time I look to my right and see his empty chair, I’m going to miss him.
But I’m not going to make a big deal of it; after all, this is baseball.
If Steve’s out there somewhere and knows what we say and think about him, I’ll just tell him to travel safe.
And the next time I see him, he better have a good story to tell me.
Travel safe, Steve.