Stottlemyre takes on a healthy challenge

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

PEIORIA, Ariz. – You want to know why John McLaren, Seattle Mariners manager, adores the Stottlemyres?

It was Christmastime, couple years ago, and he's invited to Todd Stottlemyre's home in the Phoenix area for a party. When he gets there, he's drifting through the house and comes upon two framed Toronto Blue Jays uniforms, both Todd's, from the 1992 and 1993 World Series.

But, here's the thing. Todd hadn't displayed the back of the uniforms, with the big number and the long name. He'd had the jerseys put behind glass with the fronts showing.

Nobody does that. Hell, those could have been anybody's unis. But, hey, team over self and all. And McLaren, who before getting the Mariners gig last summer had long since paid his baseball dues, loved that.

Of Todd, McLaren said, "He's just like the old man."

At about that time, the old man was crossing the Mariners' spring complex here, holding a clipboard in one hand and tether-balling the string from a stopwatch back and forth around his right forefinger.

Mel Stottlemyre is 66. He's done the big time, in New York, under Joe Torre, before resigning after the 2005 season because he'd had enough of George Steinbrenner. He's done the small time, taking weeks at a time the past two summers to watch his grandson – Mel Jr.'s boy – play Little League ball in Lewiston, Ida. He's resisted and battled a form of blood cancer – multiple myeloma – for nine years that even now requires cycles of drugs, three weeks on, one week off. Twenty-seven years ago he lost his 11-year-old son, Jason, to leukemia, and it would be an unusual man who didn't dwell on such tragedy when he swallowed his own cancer medication every morning.

All of which, Stottlemyre seems to believe, led him to this day on these fields, coaching pitchers for a team he's long considered a part of him. He grew up a few hours east of Seattle and lives about 20 minutes from Safeco Field, in Issaquah. When he watched baseball on summer nights over the past couple seasons, it was usually the Mariners or the Yankees. So, when McLaren became the true manager and asked Stottlemyre to replace the bright but inexperienced Rafael Chaves (in mid-pennant race, the Mariners allowed 308 runs over August and September, second-most in the AL), Stottlemyre accepted.

"When I left the Yankees," he said, "I never used the word, 'retirement.' "

There were other words, most under his breath, many meant for Steinbrenner. Some 2½ years later, the endlessly gracious Stottlemyre wondered if the cancer and its treatments hadn't corroded his patience for the likes of Steinbrenner, whose snide bluster Stottlemyre largely ignored for a decade.

"By the end of '05, it was wearing on me a little bit," he said. "I started to let a few things bother me."

Here, however, was a long way from there.

Stottlemyre is managing his health. He jogged from diamond to diamond Wednesday afternoon, often just behind the five men who should give the Mariners a reasonable chance to stay with the Angels in the AL West. Those starting pitchers are Erik Bedard, Felix Hernandez, Carlos Silva, Miguel Batista and Jarrod Washburn. Bedard and Silva are new to a rotation that bore much of the blame for the Mariners' late-season cannonball.

Bedard, acquired in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles, is an ace in stuff, endeavoring to become an ace in workload. Silva, a free agent from the Minnesota Twins, is a groundball factory that should play better at Safeco than in the Metrodome. Washburn and Batista are veterans who have won before, Batista just last season. And there is the King, Hernandez, whom Stottlemyre said reminds him of a young Dwight Gooden. He won 14 games last season as a 21-year-old. It is here where Stottlemyre could have the greatest impact, the kind that sways a division run. And it is here where Stottlemyre's fondness for pitching to the inner half of the plate could have the most value.

"I honestly think it's something (Hernandez) got away from a little bit," Stottlemyre said. "I've talked to him about it and he agrees. He could be dominant on both sides of the plate. He's done it in the past, a lot in the minor leagues. His stuff is just so good. We're hoping to push him a little bit to the next level."

In the clubhouse, and in their practice groups, the Mariners pitchers are just getting to know Mel Stottlemyre. When a couple of them were a touch late to a drill, Stottlemyre said nothing, but looked hard at them and then his watch, for long enough so they understood. A coach nearby smiled at a touch so deft.

That same morning, McLaren had laid it out for the entire team. In his office, he told reporters, "We think we've got a good ballclub. We know we've got a good ballclub. Our mindset is playoffs. Nothing else.

"The organization has stepped forward. They've done their job. Now they've turned it over to us and we've got to do our job."

In an American League of ferocious lineups, in a division where, end to end, the Angels are the better team, the Mariners' intentions rest on the pitching staff, the mediocre getting good, the good getting better. Stottlemyre, who'd reared a son to believe in the front of the jersey, now has a pitching staff to raise.

In his first meeting with his pitchers, Stottlemyre laid out his expectations.

"I'm used to having staffs that work in October," he said. "That's our goal. I work with that in mind."

At the end of another work day, one in which he'd forgotten his sunscreen, Stottlemyre stood in the shade of a brick wall outside the clubhouse. He had done all the pushing he could for one morning, and could not contain his satisfaction for being at it again, for being in the perfect job at the perfect time.

"I'm feeling good," he said. "I'm feeling kind of rested. This is kind of a new lease on life for me. It's baseball, and it's a privilege to still be here."

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