For a lot of the years Mel Stottlemyre served as pitching coach of theNew York Yankees, he made it easy for everybody to forget he was in treatment for a life-threatening illness. Because he never mentioned it, and if not for the changing texture of his hair, he never gave off any clues about the cancer. Stottlemyre died Sunday almost two decades after his initial diagnosis.
"I got word today," Roger Clemens said over the phone Monday evening. Clemens won the sixth of his seven Cy Young Awards while pitching for the Yankees and Stottlemyre, who himself had pitched 11 seasons for the Yankees in the 1960s and '70s.
"I think about his smile, and his laugh," Clemens said, "even when I knew he wasn't feeling well."
Stottlemyre's smile was more wry than toothy, and he was understated and honest, a product of Missouri, free of the need to be the smartest guy in the room. Harry Truman in a baseball uniform. Clemens was traded to the Yankees after winning Cy Young Awards in 1997 and 1998, and he immediately noticed Stottlemyre never interjected instruction into his bullpen sessions or workouts. Rather, Stottlemyre watched quietly, and if everything went well, he'd clap his hands and say so and leave it at that. Sometimes he did have suggestions, Clemens recalled, and those thoughts, sometimes passed along while sitting in the bullpen, were constructed on that credibility. Clemens would listen and find himself saying, "I think I can use that, Mel."
Stottlemyre possessed the trait that distinguishes a lot of instructors from their peers: relentless empathy. "He was rooting for you," said Clemens, well aware of the tendency of some coaches to turn on players. David Cone struggled terribly for the Yankees in his last season with the team, in 2000, and he once related the hurt he saw in Stottlemyre's eyes when the pitching coach walked to the mound to talk to Cone during a bad inning; it bothered him to see somebody he cared about face failure.
The first time Clemens pitched in Fenway Park as a member of the Yankees was in July 1999 -- in the second game of a three-game weekend series, on a Saturday. Clemens recalls this very specifically, and accurately, because after the first game, right fielder Paul O'Neill had jokingly complained to manager Joe Torre about how the Fenway Park crowd wore him out. Clemens overheard this. "Come out tomorrow if you think it's hectic for you," Clemens said, telling O'Neill he'd have no worries because of course the fans' ire would be aimed at The Rocket.
There was a group of well-soused football players hovering near the visitors' bullpen when Clemens went out to warm up before that start, Clemens remembered with a laugh. Stottlemyre stood next to his pitcher, as always, a towel draped over his shoulder, a water bottle on the ground. The fans screamed insults at the former Red Sox ace as he threw his warm-up pitches, sweat pouring down his face, and after one particular verbal grenade from the stands, Clemens glanced over at Stottlemyre -- and saw his pitching coach had a hand over his own mouth to cover up his laughter at what had just been yelled.
"You thought that was funny?" Clemens asked Stottlemyre.
"Yeah, that was a good one," Stottlemyre responded, and Clemens remembers them sharing the laugh.
Stottlemyre had a passion for his work, for stories, for a moment. When the Yankees played in the World Series after 9/11, President George W. Bush was scheduled to throw out the first pitch before Game 3, which Clemens was scheduled to start. Clemens was rooted in his preparation and schedule, but Stottlemyre mentioned to him it might be a good idea to head to the bullpen a little sooner than normal. That way, they would both have a chance to pause and watch the president.
Clemens agreed and altered his routine. He threw his first warm-up pitches, Stottlemyre counting them and watching the pregame ceremonies, which, that fall, were built daily around first responders -- firemen and Port Authority officers and others who had rushed in to help right after the planes went into the World Trade Center. The first responders would line up in the relatively narrow hall just outside the Yankees' clubhouse before each game. Scott Brosius, the Yankees' third baseman, said at the time he would pass the group on his way to the dugout and think about what they had all been through, with so much trauma and loss of friends and family.
Now before Game 3 of the World Series, there was a lot of anticipation for the president's first pitch. Between warm-ups, Clemens glanced at the top of Yankee Stadium and saw the silhouette of snipers above the facade.
He heard Stottlemyre say, "Let's take a break right here," and from the Yankees' bullpen, Clemens said, nobody could have had a better view of President Bush's perfect throw.
In April 2000, Stottlemyre revealed he had been diagnosed with multiple myeloma. I covered the Yankees for The New York Times in that era and wrote the news, and I remember how Mel spoke of the life-threatening disease in the same matter-of-fact tone he might've discussed a starting pitcher having a short outing.
Perhaps he worked to wall off his emotions in that moment, because he was more than familiar with cancer: Jason, his youngest son, had died of leukemia in 1981. But his demeanor never seemed to change throughout that period.
I mentioned to Clemens on Monday that Stottlemyre, to me, was like John Wayne transported off the big screen, in how he carried himself.
"One hundred percent," Clemens agreed. "That was Mel."
'I think about his smile, his laugh': Roger Clemens reflects on Mel Stottlemyre
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