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Remembering Mel Stottlemyre

I became a Yankees fan in 1977. By that time, Mel Stottlemyre, who last pitched in 1974, had been retired for years. I never saw him pitch.

I regret that I never saw Mel Stottlemyre play baseball.

As a kid, as I learned about the Yankees, I devoured every baseball book and magazine I could get my hands on. I collected baseball cards by the thousands. I tried to get as many old Yankees Yearbooks as I could find. I read them all cover to cover. And through all of that I came to learn about, and appreciate, the great Yankee pitcher of the “CBS Years,” Mel Stottlemyre.

Stottlemyre, of course, arrived in the big leagues in 1964, in time for the last Yankees pennant of their great dynasty era. He battled Bob Gibson in the World Series that year, a series the Yankees lost. Following the 1964 season, the Yankees crashed to earth. In 1966, they were even a last place team. The greats started leaving. Whitey Ford, Bobby Richardson, and Tony Kubek retired. Elston Howard went to the Red Sox. Roger Maris became a St. Louis Cardinal. Mickey Mantle stayed a while longer, but he was no longer the great Mickey Mantle. He was, instead, shell of the player he had been. As a result of all this, for greater part of the next decade, the Yankees were a second division club.

From 1965 through 1974, the entirety of the rest of Mel Stottlemyre’s career, the highest the Yankees finished in the standings was second place (in 1970), but that was just once. Most of the other years, the Yankees finished way back…often times twenty or more games out. There were no thrilling pennant races. The Yankees, the Mighty Yankees, had fallen. Far. And fast.

In 1969 (and again in 1973), the Mets became the big winning baseball attraction in New York. But, even before the Mets found success, they were lovable losers. The Yankees teams of that era have never been described as lovable. More, it’s a sad time in Yankees history. The team was run down – old and tired. Their Stadium was as well. These were dark days.

And yet, through it all, Mel Stottlemyre kept on pitching…

He made more than 30 starts every season from 1965 through 1973. He pitched more than 250 innings in every one of those seasons. In 1969, Stottlemyre threw 303 innings. And he won a lot of games for teams that weren’t very good. He won 15 or more games in every season of his career, save for two (1966, when he won 12, and 1972, when he won 14). On three occasions, Stottlemyre won 20 or more games. Six times his ERA for the season was under 3.00.

Stottlemyre was an excellent pitcher. In a different time, he would have been a bigger legend. With a different team behind him… who knows what could have been.

Imagine, for a moment, being Mel Stottlemyre, the pitcher, in the time he was a pitcher. In order to do this, one really has to take a step back…

He arrived in the big leagues in 1964 as the Yankees were on their way to their fifth consecutive World Series. This is a Yankees team that was playing in an era when they dominated baseball like no team before or since. Since 1949, they had been in every single World Series except two (1955 and 1959). Stottlemyre was a teammate of legends like Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, of Whitey Ford, and Elston Howard. There were stars all around. Great young pitchers like Jim Bouton and Al Downing were also coming up and finding quick success. One didn’t have to wonder if this would last forever…the Yankee greatness that is. It was dynasty that would seemingly go on forever.

But it didn’t. It ended abruptly.

Suddenly.

And all was lost.

In a heartbeat.

Stottlemyre arrived and the great Yankees disappeared.

And then, many years later, just as the Yankees were building a new core with Thurman Munson and Graig Nettles, Bobby Murcer and Sparky Lyle… a new Stadium was on the horizon and respectability was coming back…

Just as the Yankees were coming back, just as they were on the precipice of another championship era, Mel Stottlemyre’s arm finally gave out. His career ended. Done.

Finished.

Suddenly.

It was over. All over. He was only 32 years old.

The success for the Yankees came quickly. In a flash! An American League Pennant in 1976. World Series victories in 1977 and 1978. The Yankees were back! But, by then Mel Stottlemyre was long retired.

Some of the other old Yankees who lasted through the long years of the mid-to-late 1960’s and/or early 1970’s… guys like Munson and Roy White were still with the team when glory returned. They got a chance to enjoy the sport’s ultimate reward, a championship. Success. Greatness. Glory.

Not Mel Stottlemyre. He missed it all.

His career was lived in the gap.

1964-1974.

Stottlemyre didn’t arrive in the Major Leagues quickly enough to enjoy last good years of the Yankees dynasty, and he couldn’t hang on long enough for the next good ones.

Mel Stottlemyre was the great Yankee pitcher in their darkest years of the twentieth century, or at least since Babe Ruth had arrived and the Yankees became a winning franchise.

When one plays for the Yankees, especially when one begins his minor league career in 1961, like Mel Stottlemyre, and reaches the big leagues relatively quickly, he has to imagine that he’ll be part of the great winning tradition. It would only be reasonable to expect this. I’m sure Mel Stottlemyre expected this.

Instead, he toiled, year after year, game after game, inning after inning for an also ran.

***

I had an opportunity, just once, to meet Mel Stottlemyre. It was in the 1990’s, at a baseball card show or Fan Fest. As a life-long fan of the Yankees, I had come to appreciate Mel’s greatness and his quiet dignity. As a kid, when getting baseball cards of players was not always easy, Mel Stottlemyre was one of the first I set out to collect every card of. And I did it. I had all his cards (still do) in plastic sheets. I was looking forward to meeting this Yankees legend.

For whatever reason, the usual rush and frenetic pace of an autograph session wasn’t seemingly present when I met Mr. Stottlemyre. (And that is how I addressed him.) He looked at me when I handed him a ball to sign, I looked right back, even as an adult, still a bit awed, and I said, “May I ask you a question?”

Mr. Stottlemyre said, “Sure.”

And I asked him about all of the above, not quite in the same way, but still, he knew it all…I said, “Your career came at the wrong time. You might have been a Hall-of-Famer… You missed out on the great Yankee years! What was that like? How does that feel?”

I asked, wanting this legend to know that I truly felt bad for him, that I sensed the loss that he must have felt. The “what could have been.”

That gnawing sensation, “If only…”

I wanted Mel Stottlemyre to know that I appreciated him and that I felt his pain and loss and regret.

But it was with a smile and a handshake after a signed ball, but mostly the smile, that words he said showed what a truly remarkable person Mel Stottlemyre was…

***

I think many people decry what they believe they have lost in life.

“I could’ve been a contender.”

“If only”

“You know, I was pretty good in my day…”

As people we often wish for what might have been.

In the world today, so many seemingly ask for what others can give or do for them.

There is the sense that the world owes us something. And we want it, and want it now.

***

Not Mel Stottlemyre. He didn’t regret the unique hand dealt to him, the chance to be the Yankees ace at a rare time when the Yankees weren’t winning any pennants.

Mr. Stottlemyre told me that he was fortunate for what he had. He loved his career. He wouldn’t have traded any of it – for anything. Mr. Stottlemyre told me, plainly and clearly, that he was fortunate for what he had. There was no sense of loss. It was all good. He lived a dream and he appreciated having the opportunity to live it.

“I am just glad I had the chance to play ball,” he said. “I had it good.”

He sure did.

I never knew Mel Stottlemyre. I met him only once. You can learn a lot from a person when you talk together, even for a short time.

My heart is sad today. Mel Stottlemyre has passed.

God Bless You Mr. Stottlemyre.

Rest in Peace.





#MelStottlemyre

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