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Sports

High school players should relish time on diamonds

Chris Rollin Walker
Chris Rollin Walker

I’ll never forget the 1991 World Series.

It was perhaps the ultimate fall classic. The series went seven games, including three games that weren’t finalized until extra innings and four that ended in walk-offs.

There was the Kent Hrbek/Ron Gant incident at first base in Game 2. Do you remember the heroics of the unheralded and diminutive Mark Lemke in Games 3 and 4? There was the late Kirby Puckett’s walk-off home run in Game 6 that resulted in Jack Buck’s famous line, “And we’ll see you tomorrow night,” and, of course, in arguably the best pitching performance ever in World Series history, there was the 10-inning shutout gem from Jack Morris in a 1-0 deciding Game 7.

I’ll never forget how that World Series started and finished and it began when former umpire Steve Palermo threw out the ceremonial first pitch in Game 1. He deserved to work the plate that day but could barely even walk.

I was only 19 at the time, with only a few years of umpiring under my belt, but I was old enough to realize how tragic that was for Palermo.

He was one heck of an umpire and also a hero, but a single bullet ended his career after he courageously helped two waitresses who were being beaten and robbed in a parking lot of a restaurant in Dallas. It was the wrong place, wrong time for him, but also the right place for him to be to help save the day.

Just like that he nearly died, lost the ability to walk and saw his umpiring career come to a sudden and sad end. He was the umpire who got the save of a lifetime but lost his career because of his fearlessness.

Palermo died last week after a battle with cancer. He was 67.

He was the man who also didn’t work with an indicator, that hand-held thing to keep track of balls and strikes, while working the dish. My mentor Gus Fischer taught me in 1987 not to use one, and I still do not use one today. It was one of the things that made me appreciate Palermo even more. His ability to call balls and strikes, though, was second to none. That’s something I’ve strived to duplicate and I think most umpires look to do the same.

He was told he would never walk again. But he did. He may have needed a cane to do so, but he walked again and I wasn’t surprised he did because he was as determined as they come. Unfortunately, he was unable to umpire again, but he served as a Major League umpire supervisor for some time so he was thankfully able to continue contributing to the game he loved.

It’s scary how quickly things can change in life.

The high school baseball and softball seasons are just about over. Freshmen and sophomores probably have much to look forward to, but then again, some might not make the cut next year and this spring could be the end of their playing days at their respective schools.

While a select group of seniors will be blessed to take their games to college next year, others will hang up their spikes soon for good. Sure, there might be recreational leagues they will participate in, but for many their competitive playing days are just about over.

So I give you a polite Buddy Kupfer-esque elbow jab and remind you to all enjoy it. Soak it in and make the most of every at-bat, every game. One of the best things about baseball is there’s always a tomorrow, but that’s also only seasonal.

When you consider what happened to Palermo as well as the lives of the countless seniors in the state who will graduate soon, but not play in college, remember that it’s closing in on the time when the credits run on the TV screen. It’s time to say farewell to that uniform they’re wearing, representing their schools and collecting countless memories that they’ll never forget and certainly rehash at the 10-year anniversary in (gulp) 2027.

The time has come. Relish it.

Sugar Grove resident Chris Rollin Walker is a baseball umpire with an eye for strikes, balls, gerunds and participles. Contact him at editorial@kcchronicle.com.

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