John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Mel Stottlemyre always seemed to be at peace with the fact that he came along at the wrong time in Yankee history, an All-Star pitcher on many bad teams during one of the longest championship droughts the franchise has ever known.
"I was always too blessed to think of it that way," Stottlemyre told me once.
Even after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, the blood cancer that he succumbed to on Monday at age 77, Stottlemyre had the relentlessly positive outlook of a man who was grateful for his lot in life, as a major league player and then coach with five world championship rings.
Yet the former pitching coach for the 1980s Mets and the Joe Torre Yankees of the '90s was haunted by his timing in a more real-life sense, forever wondering if a form of prehistoric treatment for a sore arm may have caused tragedy in his life, from the death of his 11-year old son Jason in 1981, to his own cancer.
I found myself thinking about that after learning of Stottlemyre's death on Monday. The news hit hard because I'd come to like and admire him so much while writing his autobiography in 2006, getting to know him in ways I never could covering his teams as a newspaper columnist.
As it was, practically everyone in baseball thought of Mel as a classy guy, but to work closely with him was to find him more unassuming than just about anyone with his credentials could ever be, it seemed. He insisted that I stay at his house when I flew to his Seattle-area home to interview him for the book in 2006, and together with his wife, Jean, treated me as if I were a member of their family.
It was an exhilarating experience, and Stottlemyre was so strong and healthy at the time, thanks largely to a stem-cell transplant in 2000, that I wanted to believe he'd beaten the cancer for good, as I watched him pound 300-yard drives off the tee during our rounds of golf.
But the multiple myeloma returned in 2011, some five or six years after he was supposed to be dead, according to what doctors told him when he was diagnosed. And from there his life was mostly one long refusal to surrender, as any minor case of the sniffles could wreak havoc on his vulnerable immune system, putting him the hospital for days or weeks at a time.
Stottlemyre amazed everyone with his fighting spirit, especially last spring when Jean called family members to the hospital in Seattle, certain he had no more miracles in him. And yet within a few weeks he was back at home, joking with me over the phone that the hospital was going to put a plaque there in his honor.
"For most days stayed by a patient," he said with a laugh.
And then he wanted to talk baseball. He wanted to talk about the Yankees, and the job his son, Mel Jr., was doing as pitching coach of the Mariners.
When Jean finally wrestled the phone away from him, worried the conversation would exhaust him, she made sure she was out of earshot and said:
"His will to live is unbelievable."
The cancer wouldn't relent, however. Recently Jean told me that doctors had raised Mel's chemo levels to further fight off the disease, which led to more complications with pneumonia, and finally, the fight was over on Monday, nearly 20 years after the original diagnosis.
I texted Jean but didn't want to intrude beyond offering condolences. The fight had been nearly as grueling for her as for Mel, yet I knew that somewhere inside her spiritual side found consolation in believing her husband had been reunited with Jason.
Back in 2006 I had sat in the Stottlemyres' living room one night while Mel and Jean re-lived the experience of losing their youngest of three sons. It was one of the main reasons Mel had wanted to do a book -- to tell Jason's story. But it was still painful for them to discuss, all the more so because of the possibility the leukemia was caused by radiation treatment for a sore arm.
Mel told of how the Yankee team doctor in the 1960s, whom he declined to name, prescribed multiple rounds of X-ray treatment during spring training to break up calcification in his sore shoulder.
For three straight spring trainings, Stottlemyre said, he received those rounds of X-ray treatment, but when he showed up at the hospital a fourth straight year a radiologist who reviewed his case history stopped him, telling Mel that exposure to any more radiation could be dangerous.
"And I'm not just talking about this year," Stottlemyre recalled the radiologist saying. "In your lifetime you shouldn't have any more radiation."
Even then, Stottlemyre said, the team doctor scoffed upon hearing about the warning and said Mel was in no danger -- continuing the treatment. At that point, Stottlemyre said he began seeking other medical opinions until that team doctor retired within a few years, but decades later he lamented, "The warning may have come too late."
He told of how Jason had been conceived during spring training of 1969, one of the years he was receiving those treatments, and when doctors treating his son questioned Mel about his own medical history, he said they believed the radiation may have been a factor.
Likewise when Stottlemyre was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 1999, doctors told him the radiation he'd been exposed to could have been a cause.
"Over the years I've become convinced it played a role in both of the diseases," Stottlemyre told me for the book. "And obviously it bothers me."
He didn't want to assign blame. There was no way to prove anything and Stottlemyre had never made an issue of it. But all those years later he was indeed haunted by the memory as he re-lived the details of Jason's disease.
It was Mel's nature to think the best of people, the best of everything. But the pain of losing a son was never going to leave him or allow him to stop wondering about all of that needless radiation.
There are so many happy memories of Mel Stottlemyre, including the plaque in Monument Park that ensures the legacy of a great Yankee pitcher and pitching coach. And I thought about a lot of those memories on Monday, yet I kept coming back to that night in Mel and Jean's living room.
In truth it was hard to think about anything else.