Rey Palacios didn’t panic when he saw the smoke billowing from the brownstone apartment not far from his Brooklyn home. Thanks to his training in the auxiliary fire department program, as well as the times spent picking the brains of relatives who were New York City firefighters, the 17-year-old knew exactly what he had to do. It was as if the young man who would go on to play briefly for the Rochester Red Wings had spent a lifetime preparing for this moment.
When he arrived on the scene, several hysterical bystanders were screaming that there was a baby in the apartment. Palacios grabbed his air-pack and bolted upstairs. After crawling through two smoke-blackened rooms, he found the baby, scooped it into his arms and began hurtling for the stairwell, only to discover it was engulfed in flames. Although his heart was pounding through his chest, Palacios managed to keep his cool. He smashed open a window with a chair and as he climbed onto the ledge, he heard sirens. The boys from Brooklyn Ladder Company No. 101 had arrived just in the nick of time. They raised a ladder, and Palacios descended, cradling the baby.
A life had been saved thanks to a young man’s clear-headed, quick thinking under pressure. “There is no greater rush than saving a fellow human being’s life,’’ Palacios was saying recently from the kitchen table of his Irondequoit home. “You could hit 10 grand slams in the World Series and it still wouldn’t compare.” As he reflected on that moment from a half-century ago, the 23-year veteran of the Rochester Fire Department shook his head in amazement. “Looking back, I realize how blessed I’ve been,’’ Palacios said.
Doubly blessed, in fact, because both of his childhood dreams came true. Growing up in the rough-hewn neighborhood known as Red Hook in the southern tip of Brooklyn, Palacios fantasized about becoming a firefighter and a Major League Baseball player. “There was no doubt in my mind that I would become a firefighter,’’ said Palacios, who will be honored by the Rochester Baseball Historical Society at its annual Hot Stove Dinner at Frontier Field on January 25. “The baseball part of it seemed more far-fetched, especially for a kid from New York, where the odds were really stacked against you. But the firefighter part of it, that was a given.”
He was so sure of it that at age 10 he bought a radio scanner. Whenever he heard an alarm call, he’d hop on his bike and begin pedaling furiously to the address voiced by the dispatcher. “There was something about the whole idea of fighting fires that’s always fascinated me,’’ he said.
When he wasn’t playing sandlot ball, he’d bike down to the station just across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan. “We’d hang out and get to know the guys at Ladder 101,’’ he said. “And when I told them about my uncles being firefighters, they took a greater interest in me. I think they could tell that I was really serious about wanting to follow in their footsteps.”
Palacios also dreamed of following in the spikesteps of relatives who had played pro ball, either in the States or Puerto Rico. Major League scouts began taking notice of the muscular, power-hitting catcher with the bazooka arm by Palacios’ sophomore year at John Jay High School. “I felt I had the ability to eventually make it to the big leagues, but much of that stuff is beyond your control,’’ he said. “It’s such a crapshoot. I played with hundreds of talented guys in the minors who never got a shot. Fortunately, I got an opportunity.”
Palacios signed with the Detroit Tigers in 1983 and a few years later they dealt him to Kansas City. He spent parts of three seasons as a reserve catcher for the Royals, and although he hit just three homers with 17 runs batted in and a .193 batting average in 101 games, he experienced some indelible moments. Perhaps his biggest thrill came when he smashed a game-winning grand slam off Boston Red Sox reliever Jeff Reardon. A close second, though, was his first game against the New York Yankees at the House That Ruth Built in the south Bronx. Who says you can’t go home again?
“I’ll never forget that game at Yankee Stadium for as long as I live,’’ he said. “Between family and friends and guys from the Brooklyn fire houses and my old high school, there had to be at least 800 people I knew at that homecoming. Before the game, Phil Rizzuto, the Scooter, who also was from Brooklyn, interviewed me for the Yankees pre-game television show. And then George Steinbrenner came over and shook my hand. My teammates were busting my stones pretty good, because I was signing all these autographs before the game. George Brett asks: ‘What’s this all about, Rey?’ And I say, ‘Hey, I’m a New Yorker. These are my people.’ ”
And when the game began, the hometown hero didn’t disappoint. Palacios went 2-for-3 with a homer and four RBI. He also gunned down two would-be base stealers. Following his three-run blast, the Yankees mentioned on the video board that Palacios was from Brooklyn. “The crowd went bonkers,’’ he said. “After the game, I had all these people waiting outside the ballpark, asking me to sign their programs and baseballs and pose for pictures. I was two hours late getting back to the team hotel.’’
Palacios enjoyed getting to know people like Brett, the Hall-of-Fame third baseman. “George was a fun-loving guy,’’ he said. “They called him ‘Loo’ after the Looney Tune cartoon characters. He had these T-shirts of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig that he always wore under his uniform.” Palacios also spent time with Bo Jackson, an All-Star outfielder for the Royals who “moonlighted” as a Pro Bowl running back for the Oakland Raiders. “Bo was one of the most phenomenal athletes I ever saw,’’ he said. “I was there the game he climbed the wall to make his famous catch. And I’ll never forget the time he beat out a two-hopper to (Baltimore) Orioles shortstop Cal Ripken. It was a routine play, but Cal knew Bo had blazing speed so he charged the ball and threw it with all his might to first. Didn’t matter. Bo was safe by four steps. Just amazing.”
Palacios and some teammates told Jackson he should let the Royals buy out his football contract, but Bo loved the sport too much to give it up. He returned to the Raiders after the Royals season and wound up suffering a hip injury that derailed both of his sports careers. “Imagine the numbers Bo could have put up had he stuck with baseball,’’ he said.
Palacios wound up in Rochester with the Wings in 1993. Despite being 30 years old and coming off surgery for a torn labrum in his right shoulder, he was hoping to make it back to the big leagues after a strong spring training with the Baltimore Orioles. Alas, it was not to be. He got just one at-bat with the Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate in Rochester before being released that June. But the ending of one career would mark the beginning of another. “I was too old to become a New York City firefighter at that point because they had an age limit that you couldn’t be hired after age 29,’’ he said. “So, I decided to give it a shot in Rochester, where there wasn’t any age restriction for starting out.’’
He easily passed his written and physical exams, but had to wait until there were openings three years later. Palacios spent 19 years with Engine 5 on Lyell Avenue at Child Street before transferring to his current firefighting position at headquarters.
He’s experienced his share of harrowing moments on the job, perhaps none more horrible than what he witnessed in the aftermath of 9/11. Within an hour of hearing about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Palacios sought and received permission to head to New York City to help with the rescue mission. He hopped on his Harley and was at the scene by late afternoon. Fortunately, two of his brothers who were scheduled to be doing construction work near the Twin Towers that morning had escaped unscathed. But Palacios was devastated when told his friends from Ladder 101 had been killed when the towers collapsed. For nearly two straight weeks, he worked non-stop with fellow first-responders in hopes of finding survivors amid the rubble. After several days, the rescue mission became a recovery mission.
Palacios felt tremendous anger about what had happened to his friends in the city of his birth. And that torment continued to eat at him in the weeks and months after he returned to Rochester. Like soldiers in combat, he and others at Ground Zero were suffering from PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder. At his boss’s urging, Palacios underwent therapy in an attempt to come to grips with the tragedy. “I’m in a much better place now mentally,’’ he said. “You’re definitely reminded not to take life for granted. You need to live it to the fullest.”
And that’s what he does. With a catcher’s meaty hands and sinewy forearms, the 57-year-old Palacios looks as if he could still gun down a runner attempting to steal. He played on a department softball team for several years, but gave it up to spend more time with his wife, Ada, and their two children — son, Rey-J, and daughter, Ashley. These days, his competitive sports appetite is sated playing goalie for a rec-league hockey team.
His current and former careers converge when he participates in fire department nights at Frontier Field. As he and his fellow firefighters pass out smoke detectors and pamphlets about fire prevention, fans occasionally hand Palacios baseball cards and balls for him to sign. “My co-workers will let me have it pretty good when that happens,’’ he said, grinning ear-to-ear. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, look at Mr. Big Shot.’” Or they’ll tell people that really isn’t me pictured on the cards, just someone else who happens to have the same name. It’s all in good fun. I’m just thrilled I’ve gotten a chance to do what I did as a ballplayer and to continue to do what I do as a firefighter.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.