By Ken Davidoff
January 14, 2019
Joe Torre and Mel Stottlemyre
Time has covered up the level of chaos that reigned over the Yankees from March 10 to May 18 of 1999. It hardly felt like the midpoint of a dynasty.
Joe Torre, the beloved Yankees manager and magical Steinbrenner whisperer, took a leave of absence to treat his prostate cancer. Don Zimmer, Torre’s bench coach and behavioral opposite, became the interim skipper and took turns engaging in public battles with George Steinbrenner, Darryl Strawberry, Hideki Irabu and an achy knee that required a replacement.
Behind all that noise, Mel Stottlemyre ran the Yankees’ pitching staff, taking on additional media responsibilities in Torre’s absence, while covering up his own level of personal chaos.
Stottlemyre died Sunday at age 77 after battling multiple myeloma, the blood cancer, for more than a quarter of his life. Doctors first detected the disease during that frenzied stretch in 1999, and Stottlemyre kept quiet for nearly a year until its advancement forced him to miss time with the 2000 Yankees as he underwent treatment.
This was a death sentence. Stottlemyre knew it. Yet he treated the diagnosis as a challenge to conquer and an opportunity to inspire others. Missions accomplished and then some.
Torre, in a statement Monday, called Stottlemyre “the toughest man I have ever met,” and good luck finding someone who met Stottlemyre, who had a heck of a pitching career before joining the coaching ranks, and would disagree. It didn’t start with his John Wayne act with those 1999 Yankees, who straightened out to win their second World Series title and third in four years. No, that setback occurred some 18 years after Stottlemyre suffered every parent’s worst nightmare, the loss of a child, as his 11-year-old son Jason died of leukemia.
In my years of covering Stottlemyre — his entire run as Yankees pitching coach from 1996-2005 and occasional subsequent contact — it’s not like I ever sat down with him in a therapist’s office and psychoanalyzed him. But he conducted himself like a man who had been through hell and wouldn’t be intimidated by anything — or anyone — in his path. He was fearless.
As the Yankees’ fortunes turned after 2000, the championship spigot turned off and postseason disappointments becoming the new norm, Stottlemyre treated The Boss’ increasingly frequent public harangues with a mixture of contempt and defiance. Having already been estranged from the Yankees for over two decades following his 1975 release — in the interim, he worked as the Mets’ pitching coach from 1984-93 and won a ring in 1986 — he didn’t give Steinbrenner the satisfaction of firing back with insults. Rather, he would smile and offer variations of “I’ve been through worse.”
He still enjoyed the work even when the parades stopped. I recall sitting next to him at a Newark Airport gate, both of us traveling to Tampa for the start of Yankees spring training in 2003, and talking through the entire roster; he loved having Raul Mondesi’s arm in right field for his pitchers. We realized that we rented condominiums in the same Tampa development, and he talked about how much, after a long day at the ballpark, he loved fishing on the property’s waterfront. Even though I never ran into Mel carrying his fishing pole, I occasionally glanced at the waterfront and envisioned him enjoying his earned tranquility.
I last spoke with Stottlemyre in the summer of 2016, when I worked on an oral history of the legendary Subway Series two-stadium doubleheader in 2000. He joked about how the cancer had clouded his memory, yet he still recalled working with Dwight Gooden in the bullpen as Doc, Mel’s old Mets charge, somehow fooled the Mets for five innings to win Game 1, his only Shea Stadium appearance as a visitor. Then Stottlemyre ran through the timeline of the Roger Clemens-Mike Piazza feud, as Mets pitcher Shawn Estes threw at Clemens in 2002 to retaliate belatedly for Clemens beaning Piazza in Game 2.
He loved his time in uniform. He made baseball a better place. The game could use more calming forces, more inspirations, don’t you think?