As Mel Stottlemyre continues his long battle with cancer, he and his sons share an unshakeable family bond strengthened by tragedy and the timeless sport they have played throughout their lives.
SAMMAMISH — If you want to see Mel Stottlemyre glow — and that’s not always easy these days, considering the hell he’s been through — just mention his oldest son’s decision to follow his path into coaching.
“I can’t tell you how good that made me feel,’’ said Stottlemyre, 74, sitting on the back porch of his Sammamish home on one of his good days. “It was sort of a stamp of approval of what I had done with my life.”
When Mel Stottlemyre Jr., the Mariners’ first-year pitching coach, ponders what his father has done with his life, it’s with a similar glow, one of pride, admiration and deep love. They call each other best friends, along with Todd Stottlemyre, Mel’s other son, and you can tell it’s not forced or fake.
It goes well beyond Mel Sr.’s prowess as a Yankees pitcher (164 wins, five All-Star Games), or his own success as a pitching coach (a World Series title with the New York Mets in 1986 and four more with the New York Yankees during their dynastic years from 1996 to 2000, then a one-year stint with the Mariners in 2008).
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This glow centers around the way his dad has lived his life with such integrity that he’s one of the most beloved Yankees. More specifically, the courage he has shown since 2000 battling cancer that was supposed to kill him in three to five years.
“And here I am 17 years later,’’ Mel said with a broad grin.
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“I still hurt around Christmas”
The family had already endured one tragic battle with cancer — Jason Stottlemyre, Mel’s son and Mel Jr.’s younger brother, died of leukemia in 1981 at age 11. Every family member, including Mel’s wife of 53 years, Jean, and son Todd, a former major-league pitcher now living in Arizona, carry those scars.
“We all deal with it in different ways but it brought us really tight,’’ said Mel Jr., 52,. “I think it made us more open, and conversations were probably more open, and better and healthy. But we went through some tough times, counseling. It was brutal. Brutal. You never get over it. I still hurt around Christmas.”
Brutal aptly describes Mel Sr.’s ordeal. The dreaded diagnosis of multiple myeloma — a cancer of the blood marrow — haunts Mel Sr. to this day. Yet it hasn’t defeated him — and not for lack of effort. Though there was a long period of remission following an initial regimen of intensive chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant on Sept. 14, 2000, the cancer returned with a vengeance about five years ago.
Since then, Stottlemyre has had myriad health issues, all related to the cancer or the drugs that treat it — internal infections, heart and thyroid issues, hip problems, a torn Achilles tendon that can’t be operated upon because of the chemo, a broken rib and a form of diabetes.
“He has so many different problems right now,” his son says, shaking his head.
But watching how his father endures uncomplainingly has been inspirational to Mel Jr., on and off the field.
“It’s helped shape me and give meaning to what I do,’’ he said.
The nadir, Stottlemyre Sr. said, came two years ago when he was hospitalized five times for fevers related to his chemo. He spent Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s in the hospital. The misery lingered for the better part of a year. For one of the few times, Stottlemyre’s spirits wavered, if only slightly.
“My body just did not feel like it was up to shape,’’ he said. “I was really beat down. I had my doubts about whether I was going to snap out of it. But I always did.”
“They know when I’m down”
Stottlemyre eventually responded well to his chemotherapy. Now he’s on a break from chemo and is undergoing weekly antibody treatment. The first one lasted nine hours, and they all pretty much wipe him out for the next day. But Stottlemyre is bouncing back nicely this time, to the point he can dream about resuming his favorite pastime, fishing, as well as making it back out to Safeco Field, where he has been just once this year, to the Mariners’ home opener.
No matter what woes befall him, Stottlemyre fights on, with the determination and good humor that made generations of pitchers — from Dwight Gooden and Ron Darling to David Cone and Andy Pettitte — revere him. He and Jean visit the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance so often that Stottlemyre jokes, “We know how to get there in the dark with our eyes closed.”
Turning serious, Stottlemyre lauds the role of his family in his perseverance.
“I’m planning on continuing and going on,’’ he said, eyes brimming with tears. “It’s because of Junior, Todd, my wife, Jean that … they push me. They know when I’m down, they know when I’m having a tough time. They always just seem to say the right things, do the right things. I get lifted up again.”
Mel gets even more emotional when speaking of Jean, whom he met in Mabton, a town of 900 about 45 minutes southeast of Yakima, where he grew up. She has been his advocate and nurse through all the medical tribulations, accompanying him on virtually every doctor’s visit and treatment session. Jean makes sure Mel takes every pill at the right time, which can be a logistical maze. Her sons refer to Jean as “Nurse Ratched” — lovingly, of course.
“She has been through hell,’’ Mel said. “She has done everything, everything for me. I’ve told her many times, if it was reversed, I couldn’t do it. She’s the strongest person I know … My care at the hospital has been outstanding, but my care at home has been unbelievable.
“She’s just on top of everything. She’s meant the world to me. She’s kept me alive.”
This year, Mel Jr. has had a chance to view his father’s ordeal close up, and it has been eye-opening and poignant. Stottlemyre moved in with his parents at the start of the season while his wife Lisa and three children (ages 23, 17 and 15) remained home in Lewiston, Idaho, until the end of the school year.
“We all know he’s a tough man,’’ Mel Jr. said. “He watched his son die from cancer, and that gave him a will to live. To this day, he still fights. That’s all he knows.”
Stottlemyre Jr. pauses. “You’re hopeful, you stay optimistic, but I’m a realist, too. I do understand what we’re up against. But I keep fighting with him.”
“So much of my dad in me”
And watching his son coach the Mariners — through Wednesday, they had the lowest earned-run average in the American League — has been therapeutic for Stottlemyre. He studies every game on television and notes every nuance: the way Stottlemyre Jr. interacts with his pitchers in the dugout, the way he reacts when the pitchers are laboring.
“I don’t want to tell Junior this too many times,’’ he said, ‘’ but I watch his every move. I’ve been a Yankee all my life, but it’s been a slow move to where I’m a No. 1 Mariner fan now.”
He’s proud of the rapport his son has with his pitchers, which was always Mel Sr.’s calling card as a coach.
“I hear so much of my dad in me,’’ Stottlemyre Jr. said with a smile. “We have the same drive, the passion for the game, and the love for the players.”
“It’s what makes me tick”
Stottlemyre Jr.’s own pro career was racked by arm injuries, though he did make it to the majors for 13 games with the Kansas City Royals in 1990. Todd Stottlemyre, known as one of the fieriest pitchers of his era, won 138 games in the majors from 1988 to 2002.
Mel Jr. realizes now that he has transferred his baseball passion into coaching, and that he grew as a result of his struggles as a player. He doesn’t believe he’d be the same coach, or even coaching at all, if he’d had Todd’s career. Todd made $53 million as a player, had 339 starts and won two World Series with the Blue Jays.
“I wanted that, too,’’ Mel Jr. said. “That was the part of competing I love. Now I compete in a different way, with my players. This is the closest thing to it. Sometimes they look at me like I’m a little nuts, and I know I drive them, but that’s me.”
Those who knew Jason from his Little League days in Yakima, where the boys grew up, are convinced he was going to be the best player of the bunch. Todd Stottlemyre, who donated his own bone marrow in an attempt to save Jason, always said he took his brother’s memory to the mound every start. Mel Jr. carries his brother with him, too.
“It’s what makes me tick, I’ll be honest,’’ he said. “My dad’s been through hell, and watching my brother try to survive and fight and beat his deal, it’s taught me a lot about life, and it’s shaped me as a person.
“I didn’t have a chance to pitch as long as Todd, but I had that same desire and same drive and same meaning to compete and give everything I have. I still do it to this day as a coach.”
“My sons for the summer”
If his dad is still up when Stottlemyre Jr. gets home from the ballpark, they often discuss the game. Mel Sr. may offer tips or advice, but only if he senses his son is receptive or asks for them.
After a baseball lifetime around his dad, who brought Mel Jr. into the Yankee locker room as a youngster to meet Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Thurman Munson and the rest — Mantle used to joke that Mel Jr. looked so much like him that he must have been his father — their philosophies and outlook have essentially merged.
On Father’s Day, Mel Jr. will be on the road with the Mariners in Boston, and Mel Sr. will be watching from his living room. The bond between the two knows no geographic bounds.
Mel Sr. says he realizes no one is perfect, but he feels Todd and Mel Jr. are as close to perfection as sons can be.
The feeling is mutual.
“I could write a book on how he’s impacted my life,’’ Mel Jr. said. “The inner strength he has and carries with him to push on, it’s amazing. I look at my dad, the way he and my mom raised us, the opportunities they gave us and the sacrifices they made, and I never take that for granted.
“These pitchers are my sons for the summer, and I treat them the same way my dad treated us, and the same way he treated his pitchers. He knows I’ll be thinking about him on Father’s Day, as I do every day. He’s been a dad, he’s been a best friend, and obviously he’s been a mentor for me in baseball as a player and coach, but more importantly, as a mentor for life. I hope I can pass that on to my kids.”
Sitting in their living room, listening to those words, the man who has out-lived his cancer prognosis by nearly two decades and who firmly believes that a cure will be found to help others gets misty again.
I ask him how that makes him feel.
“It touches my heart,’’ he said.