Mel Stottlemyre in 2015

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McCann: Mel Stottlemyre Was A Unique Baseball Legend

Yankees Great Died Sunday Following Long Cancer Battle

January 15, 2019 - 2:27 pm
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By Mike McCann

New York lost a one-of-a-kind baseball legend with the passing of Mel Stottlemyre.

We first got to see him in 1964, as the Yankees' top young pitching prospect was promoted from the minors to help push an aging and not-quite-as-dominant team to its fifth straight pennant. The soft-spoken rookie quickly opened eyes, going 9-3 with two shutouts and five complete games in the season's last seven weeks.

While Stottlemyre initially joined Whitey Ford at the top of the Yankees rotation, by the middle of that year's World Series against the Cardinals, after Ford was sidelined by a circulatory issue, Stottlemyre had become the Yankees' ace and held his own against St. Louis' best, Bob Gibson.

But 1964 became Stottlemyre's only postseason appearance as a player. Depending on how you see history, he was either born five years too early or five years too late. If he'd arrived in the Bronx five years earlier, Stottlemyre would have joined Ford and Ralph Terry in a rotation that might have produced five world champions during the first half of the 1960s, not just two.

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If Mel had come along five years later, he'd have been that other rising star alongside Thurman Munson and Bobby Murcer and perhaps helped get the Yankees back to October before 1976.

Because, by '76, Stottlemyre's career was over. A rotator-cuff injury, far less treatable then than now, ended his playing days two years before, at age 32. So, he didn't made it to the "Bronx Zoo," alongside Reggie Jackson and Sparky Lyle and Mickey Rivers. The wildness of the time didn't quite fit his persona anyway.

Yet, Mel's New York baseball story was far from over. After working as a minor league instructor for the Mariners, he returned to the Big Apple in 1984, as the pitching coach on Davey Johnson's Mets staff. Working with a staff led by Doc Gooden, Ron Darling, Bobby Ojeda, Sid Fernandez, Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco, they were a contender for the remainder of the decade, highlighted by the '86 World Series championship against the Red Sox.

And there would be another Yankees chapter for Stottlemyre's story, as Joe Torre's pitching coach on teams that won four championships in 10 seasons.

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Five rings, 40 career shutouts, 152 complete games. And most of all, a totally grounded man. When I interviewed the native of a small town in Washington state after his memoir was published in 2007, I asked why he never had trouble playing in a city that's eaten up so many athletes who didn't take to the New York vibe. Stottlemyre calmy responded, "I pitched a game like I was maybe in my backyard."

And he did it at first playing alongside his boyhood heroes. While his roots were West Coast, Stottlemyre grew up a Yankees fan.

"My idols were Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford," he said. "And for me to graduate from the backyard pretending I was them when I threw or whenever I grabbed a bat, and all of a sudden I'm in the locker room with them on the same team, you just can't imagine what a thrill that was for me. .. I've told a lot of young people that a lot of your dreams can come true, because mine certainly did."

Mel, thanks for sharing your dreams and talent with us -- making Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium your backyard -- and earning a revered place in New York baseball history.

Check out Mike McCann's Field of Fotos blog at mikemccann.blogspot.com.