But nobody could have been as happy to walk onto the artificial turf under Toronto's SkyDome as were Rich Hacker and Steve Palermo. Say what you will about Devon White's hitting and Robbie Alomar's incredible fielding, Hacker and Palermo are the most heart-warming stories around. Happy to walk onto the field? They are happy to be walking at all.
Palermo's story is the better-known. After umpiring a game in Arlington, Texas, two years ago, Palermo was shot while trying to prevent two women from being assaulted in the parking lot of his favorite restaurant. One assailant's bullet hit Palermo in the back and damaged his spinal column, resulting in what doctors said at the time would be complete paralysis from the waist down.
Hacker was in the middle of his third season as the Blue Jays' third-base coach when he headed home to Belleville, Ill., for the All-Star break. While driving on a bridge across the Mississippi River, his car was hit head-on by lunatic drag-racers looking for a cheap thrill. The chill that ran through the American League locker room as word spread about Hacker is a feeling I won't soon forget. He suffered severe damage, including trauma to his brain.
Doctors told his wife, Kathryn, he could remain in a coma for six months. The long-term prognosis was not encouraging.
So, when Palermo and Hacker met here -- both upright and both smiling broadly -- it made some of the stories we normally chase seem to pale in comparison. Neither man is in the same condition he was before fate struck, but neither is where doctors said he might be either. They make a nice triumph of spirit.
"I don't remember anything at all about the accident," Hacker says, sitting comfortably back on the Jays' bench last Saturday night. "In fact, I don't even remember anything about the weekend before that, when we had played in Kansas City and a bunch of friends came over to see us. I think I'm pretty lucky."
Hacker was in intensive care but began recovering quickly. Within a few weeks, he was moved to an inpatient physical-therapy center in suburban St. Louis and when his miracle recovery continued, he was allowed to move back home. The Blue Jays stayed in constant contact and were happy to invite him to the playoffs and Series as a part of the team, even though Nick Leyva now occupies the third-base coaching box. "You can't imagine what it feels like for me to be here.
"But, let me tell you. Everybody in the baseball community was great to me. I had cards, letters, calls and prayers from everywhere. I heard from everybody with the Blue Jays; they have been terrific. But I have heard from players, coaches, managers all over. Even umpires."
With that, perhaps realizing the nice irony, Hacker grinned broadly.
No one, Hacker included, knows the whens or ifs of his returning. He continues therapy as an outpatient, trying to locate some of the information that used to be so readily accessible in his memory. "I'm already doing better than they thought I could," he says with only the slightest outward trace of satisfaction. "You can't say I won't be back."
Everywhere Palermo stood on the field Saturday night, steadied by the use of two black metallic canes, he drew a crowd. In his 15-year tenure as an American League umpire, he grew to know players and managers, as well as writers. Everyone seems genuinely fond of Palermo.
Like Hacker, Palermo undergoes physical therapy, although his is to repair legs that can't remember.
Palermo's determination and relentless good cheer is remarkable. You know he wants to be back on the field umpiring, but the whole time he talked, he did so with a smile. Here's a man who will make the most of what he has. "I could whine about what happened, but what good does it do? That creates negative energy and that just drags you down."
That does not keep him from thinking about that fateful night. "I think about it every day," he says. As he talks about the events of the night and what they have robbed him of, tears rim his eyes. The soft voice breaks, finally falters.
"I think about coming out here again," he says, swinging one of his canes gently in an arc that defines the playing field. "That's what keeps me going. I want to walk out here and sweat."
"What's the reality of that?" The question takes a long time to get out of my mouth. "I don't listen to odds," Palermo says defiantly and the effervescent Stevie is back. "The doctors struck out on that one already. They got caught looking. They're experts and I trust them, but there's so much about spinal injuries they just don't know."