He was a New York baseball legend – on both sides of the Triborough Bridge.
Mel Stottlemyre, the lonely ace of the Yankee pitching staffs in the 1965-71 pre-George Steinbrenner lean years who then went on to an equally distinguished career as one of the pre-eminent pitching coaches in baseball with the world champion ’86 Mets and Joe Torre’s multiple-ringed Yankee staffs, died Sunday in Seattle after a long battle with bone marrow cancer. He was 77.
A five-time All-Star and three-time 20-game winner for the Yankees and later the tutor for Doc Gooden, Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens among others, Stottlemyre was first diagnosed with multiple myeloma, for which there is no cure, in the spring of 1999, his third season as Torre’s pitching coach. He underwent an experimental treatment for the disease that included a stem-cell transplant, four months of chemotherapy, and as many as 24 pills a day, after which doctors told him there was still no way of knowing if or when the disease would come back.
Long after he retired from baseball, he nevertheless continued to fight the dreaded disease, out-living the doctors’ most optimistic prognostications. On Oldtimers Day, June 20, 2015, after getting his doctors’ permissions, he made the cross-country trip to Yankee Stadium where the Yankees bestowed a surprise honor on him – a plaque in Monument Park. In an emotional, heart-rending speech reminiscent of the doomed Lou Gehrig’s address to a pack-house Stadium crowd some 77 years earlier, Stottlemyre provided one of the great moments in the team’s storied tradition.
“Today in this Stadium, there is no one that’s happier to be on this field than myself,” he said, choking up. “This is such a shock to me because the era I played in is an era where, for the most part, the Yankees have tried over the years, I think, somewhat to forget a little bit…If I never get to come to another Oldtimers Day, I will take these memories and I’ll start another baseball club, coaching up there, whenever they need me.”
Stottlemyre grew up in the tiny town of Mabton (population 900), Wa., 150 miles southeast of Seattle and signed with the Yankees out of Yakima Valley Community College in 1961 for $400 per month by a scout named Eddie Taylor, who told the Yankees, “he might not be overpowering, but he’s got great determination and a will to learn.” It wasn’t until August of 1964, however, after developing a new grip on his sinkerball, that Stottlemyre got the Yankees’ attention. In a desperate pennant race fight with the Chicago White Sox and their pitching beset by injuries, particularly a hip ailment to Whitey Ford, the Yankees reached down to their Triple A Richmond club where Stottlemyre, who wasn’t even on their 40-man roster, was 13-3 after reeling off 10 straight wins.
It is not exaggeration that Stottlemyre saved the ’64 season for the Yankees. Starting with a 7-3 complete game victory over the White Sox in his first major league start, Stottlemyre went 9-3 with a 2.06 ERA in 12 starts down the stretch. He was almost as brilliant in the World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals after Ford developed an arterial blockage in his arm in losing Game 1. With Ford out, Stottlemyre had to make three starts in the Series against Cardinals’ future Hall-of-Famer Bob Gibson. He won the first matchup with a complete game seven-hitter and was trailing 2-0 when he lifted for a pinch hitter in the seventh inning of Game 5. With no other starter he could trust, Yankee manager Yogi Berra brought Stottlemyre back on two days rest to face Gibson again in Game 7, but this time he just didn’t have it and was kayoed in the fifth inning.
“I finally got real nervous for the first time all that season because I suddenly realized there was no tomorrow…that the whole season hinged on that one game,” Stottlemyre said in a 2002 interview with the Daily News.
Stottlemyre had no way of knowing that ’64 World Series loss was the end of the Yankee dynasty. The next year, it was as if everyone on the team got old at once as the club was sold by Dan Topping and Del Webb to CBS. But though they endured four losing seasons in the next five and would finish higher than fourth only once from ’65-’73, Stottlemyre soldiered on as Ford’s top-of-the-rotation successor, with a 20-9 record and a league-leading 291 innings in his first full season, ’65, and back-to-back All-Star seasons of 21-12 and 20-14 for fifth-place Yankee teams in ’68 and ’69. Overall, he was named to five All-Star teams. He also achieved one of the rarest hitting feats in baseball when, with the bases loaded on July 20, 1965, he hit a long ball into the left-center field gap at Yankee Stadium off Boston’s Bill Monboquette. As the ball went all the way to the wall, Stottlemyre huffed and puffed around the bases to become the first pitcher to hit an inside-the-park grand slam since Pittsburgh’s Deacon Phillippe in 1910.
On June 11, 1974, Stottlemyre was pitching against the California Angels at Yankee Stadium when, on a curve ball to Frank Robinson, he felt something pop in his shoulder. He had torn his rotator cuff. In those days, they didn’t have the technology to either detect or correct it. Instead, he was told to shut it down until the following spring when Yankee GM Gabe Paul assured him he’d be given all the time he needed until May 1 before the Yankees made a decision on him. But once Paul learned they’d have to pay him $30,000 in severance if they kept him on the roster after March 31, they released him. Stottlemyre’s career, 164-139, 2.97 ERA, in which nine of his 11 seasons he logged 250 innings or more, was over. Even though Steinbrenner was under suspension that year, and it was Paul’s decision to so rudely cut an honored and popular Yankee, Stottlemyre remained bitter at the only organization he’d known, especially after Steinbrenner promised – but never paid him – $40,000 to go to a kinesiology doctor friend of his at Michigan State to have his shoulder worked on.
Stottlemyre did not forgive them until the fall of 1995 when Yankee VP Arthur Richman, who’d been traveling secretary with the Mets when he was pitching coach for them from 1983-93, called him on behalf of Steinbrenner to tell him the Yankees wanted to hire him as pitching coach. Stottlemyre was at first skeptical, but a few days later Steinbrenner himself called and apologized for the way he’d been treated in 1974. Stottlemyre accepted the job, but was able to also extract his pound of satisfaction by getting Steinbrenner to agree to an additional $40,000 signing bonus.
By then, Stottlemyre had earned baseball-wide acclaim for his work with pitchers, having been in the forefront, as Davey Johnson’s right hand man, with the pitching-rich Mets teams in the mid-‘80s. All of those Mets’ pitchers – Gooden, Darling, Fernandez, Bobby Ojeda, Rick Aguilera, David Cone – praised Stottlemyre for his attention to detail, his ability to adjust to their individual styles and for not trying to tinker with them. With the Mets and his first couple of years with the Yankees, Stottlemyre would personally catch his pitchers’ pre-game bullpen sessions in order to get a better read on their stuff that day. With the Yankees, from 1996-2005, Stottlemyre’s more established staffs won four more world championships, but all was not always copacetic. Steinbrenner’s penchant for meddling, such as periodically calling in minor league pitching coordinator, Billy Connors, to work with the Yankee pitchers especially irritated Stottlemyre, as well as Torre and led to another falling out with the organization and his decision to resign after the 2005 season.
“It’s very sad for me. I have been here for 10 years and I hate to go,” he said, “but it’s time for me to leave.”
Stottlemyre is survived by his wife, Jean, and two sons, Todd and Mel, Jr., both of whom pitched in the major leagues. A third son, Jason, died in 1981 of leukemia.
SOURCE: NY Daily News – John Madden