The STOTTLEMYRE name has been a part of baseball's spring training since the early 1960's, but this spring has been the most gratifying of all. For the first time in two years, phone calls between Mel and Todd, father and son, have not been conversations about cancer, chemotherapy, blown-out shoulders and career-threatening elbow pain.
Pitcher TODD STOTTLEMYRE'S idea of a perfect day in spring training is pain-free throwing, batting practice and fielding drills, all without worrying about what could happen if his dad were to catch a cold. Now in his sixth season as the pitching coach for the New York Yankees, MEL STOTTLEMTYRE, 59, is cancer-free and expected to be off medication, just six months after leaving the team to have a stem-cell transplant. His battle with cancer helped Todd, 35, put two years of arm injuries into perspective. "Now if he gets a cold, he's going to be like everyone else," Todd says. "He's allowed to get one, his body will fight it, just like mine would." Mel says he already feels 100 % , but is eager for the medical confirmation: "I'm looking forward to it. It will be nice to get past that six-month period when I don't have to take that pill." In 1999, Todd came back from a rotator-cuff injury in his right shoulder. This spring, his surgically repaired elbow is getting stronger and he is hopeful of being in the starting rotation for the Arizona Diamondbacks sooner than later.
How did they confront cancer ? Mel was stoic while Todd was emotional. Each attacked it with a positive approach and both got strength from the tragic deaths in their family. The youngest son, Jason, died from leukemia, at the age of 11 in 1981. Then in October, on the night the Yankees were wrapping up their third consecutive World Series championship, Mel was in a New Jersey hospital while across the country, his brother, Keith, died of a brain tumor. "I just want to focus on baseball," says Todd, the middle of three sons. "All I want to do is get into baseball shape. I want to swing a bat. I want to field ground balls.
"Phone conversations are normal now," says Mel. "They start out with everyday stuff instead of 'How are you feeling ?' I appreciate my life in general so much more. I want people to know that there is life after cancer." He was diagnosed with a blood cancer, known as multiple myeloma, a type of cancer formed by malignant plasma cells, two years ago and left the field on September 11 to have a stem-cell transplant. Normal plasma cells are crucial to the immune system but when they are produced at an abnormal rate, they can cause tumors, anemia and fatigue. Stem cell transplant is a procedure where certain blood cells critical to healthy bone marrow are harvested from the patient's blood, then reintroduced after the chemotherapy has destroyed most of the cancerous plasma cells.
His life now is close to normal. He has a full head of hair again and bloating caused by the chemotherapy is gone. He no longer eats spicy food, black pepper and food loaded with preservatives and fat. He has an energetic walk as he carries a bag of baseballs heading to the bullpen in the right-field corner of Legends Field in Tampa. The only hint of earlier difficulties is that sometimes, Instead of walking from field to field, he drives a golf cart. He hasn't pitched batting practice so far this spring but says he will again in the near future.
"My dad is the most remarkable human being I've ever been around", says Todd. "To watch him battle for his life made it a lot easier for me to endure the pain to play baseball. The things he has gone through has allowed me to look at things differently. The things I battled, there was no comparison to what he was going through." Todd injured his rotator cuff in May 1999 and made an amazing three-month recovery, pitching for the Diamondbacks in the postseason that fall. Then he started 2000 with an 8-3 record before elbow and hernia problems sidelined him. He had surgery on September 26 and started throwing only a week before spring training.
He gets choked up when relating how the baseball community reached out. Opponents would wish him well during games. "Teammates, ex-teammates, former managers, fans, everyone was incredible," he says. After numerous testing Mel was told last March it was now time to treat the cancer.
A month later, when the Yankees were in Seattle, he called Todd to let him know he was going public with his condition. "I could hear a crack in his voice," Todd said, who was starting the next day in San Diego. "But the last thing he said was, 'Win one for Dad tomorrow.' I sat in my car and cried and cried and cried. I wanted to go inside and take that cancer right out of him." Instead, Todd pitched and won against the Padres. Later, in mid-summer, Mel went to Philadelphia to watch Todd pitch. He sat next to the D'backs dugout, and players came by to give him their encouragement. In the game, Todd hit his first-ever major league home run. " I had never done that before," he said. "I had never even come close and he said that was one of his best days in baseball. With all his accomplishments, a World Series, five-time All Star and three twenty win seasons, that really meant something to me."
The day of Mel's stem cell transplant there were more phone calls between Todd and his mother, Jean. Nobody mentioned anything negative but his only experience with cancer surgery had been with his late brother Jason. "I never said, ' What if it doesn't work ?' but I thought it, " Todd said. "I never asked about the odds but I wanted to know what they were." After the transplant, he flew to New York and stayed with his father between starts. Then, in February, there was positive news. His parents called to let him know they were heading down to spring training.
Todd couldn't have been any happier. "What a neat day," Todd stated. "He's going back to work. I knew that he was fired up to be with Don Zimmer and Joe Torre and put on those Yankees pinstripes again."