- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
- 0 Shares
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Mel Stottlemyre's doctors tell him that multiple myeloma -- the form of cancer that first attacked his system in 1999 -- is still classified as "incurable." But with modern medical advances, a tenacious patient and a little good fortune, it's not necessarily a death sentence.
"I think I'm living proof of that," Stottlemyre said.
For the past two years, since he resigned as New York Yankees pitching coach amid criticism from owner George Steinbrenner, Stottlemyre has kept his head in the game watching baseball on television and doing some instructional work on the side for the Arizona Diamondbacks. That regimen seemed fulfilling enough until the Mariners approached him with an offer this past fall: Would he be willing to end his semi-retirement for a final run as pitching coach in Seattle?
The baseball lifer in Stottlemyre couldn't resist. Little did he know the Mariners would spend the next few months sweetening their offer in ways totally unrelated to salary and benefits.
Most years, the Mariners rank down the list of Arizona spring training attractions. If they're not overshadowed by Barry Bonds dressing up as Paula Abdul in "Giants Idol," they're a mere afterthought to the Lou Piniella & Alfonso Soriano Show at Cubs camp in Mesa.
Not this spring. Although Kosuke Fukudome and Ryan Dempster made for an interesting first week in Cubs land and the Dan Haren-Brandon Webb combination is rife with promise down Interstate 10 in Tucson, Seattle has a chance to be the talk of the Cactus League.
After winning a surprising 88 games last year, the Mariners approached the offseason with a genuine sense of urgency. In December, they signed Carlos Silva to a four-year, $48 million contract. The deal was particularly generous considering that Kyle Lohse, the closest thing to Silva on the free-agent market, still hasn't found a job.
In early February, Seattle general manager Bill Bavasi raised the stakes. After weeks of false alarms and reported changes of heart by Baltimore owner Peter Angelos, the Mariners traded outfield prospect Adam Jones, reliever George Sherrill and three minor league pitchers to the Orioles for strikeout artist Erik Bedard.
Seattle's new, upgraded rotation combined for a 66-52 record and 960 innings pitched last season. And it's a melting pot in the truest sense. The group includes a native Canadian (Bedard), two Venezuelans (Felix Hernandez and Silva), a Dominican (Miguel Batista) and the pride of La Crosse, Wis. (Jarrod Washburn).
Talk about eclectic. Bedard is a taciturn lefty who works out each winter at his uncle's chicken coop in Ontario. Washburn, a lefty finesse guy, is partial to bow hunting. Hernandez is Seattle's resident Cy Young Award winner-in-training; Silva is the durable ground ball machine; and Batista throws the kitchen sink and a few extraneous bathroom fixtures at hitters in a typical start. He also has written poetry and a novel on the side.
Over the next six weeks, as Seattle's starters bond as a unit in Arizona, Stottlemyre and coaching sidekick Norm Charlton will be pushing and prodding each step of the way.
Seattle manager John McLaren entrusts his financial investments to Todd Stottlemyre, a former big league pitcher who works for Merrill Lynch. He's equally comfortable letting Dad oversee the Seattle staff.
"When Mel speaks, you can see how much respect he gets in return," McLaren said. "His reputation precedes him."
Stottlemyre is an old-school, avuncular type at heart, talking the nuances of baseball with anyone who'll listen and patting backs to help his pitchers through the inevitable ruts and crises of confidence. Patience was his trademark during his decade-long run under Joe Torre in New York.
Charlton, Seattle's new bullpen coach, is a former Cincinnati "Nasty Boy" who walked the line between studious and unhinged in a 13-year playing career. Charlton can break down the game with a diligence befitting a former Rice University triple major. But he also cultivated an air of unpredictability as a player -- whether he was steamrolling Mike Scioscia at home plate or playing coy to mess with hitters' heads when Giants manager Roger Craig suggested he might be doctoring his pitches.
Last year, the Seattle pitching staff ranked in the bottom third among MLB clubs in ERA, strikeouts and quality starts, and it surrendered far too many two-strike hits for McLaren's liking. When Stottlemyre and Charlton sat down in the offseason and discussed priorities, two things immediately came to mind. They wanted their pitchers to focus on: (1) throwing strike one and (2) pitching inside.
"When you pitch inside, it obviously opens up the outside part of the plate," Charlton said. "But more than anything else, I think your pitch counts go down. You get more called strikes and a lot of broken bats and jam shots. If I'm a starter and I can save myself 10 pitches a game, over 30 starts, I've just saved myself three games."
In a perfect world, Seattle's offseason additions will have a ripple effect. A stronger rotation will ease the strain on a bullpen that showed signs of wear in September. And Bedard's arrival should take some focus off Hernandez, who somehow has been classified as a tease for failing to pitch to his potential. When you're dubbed "King Felix" on the blogosphere at 19, there's not much room for a learning curve.
"People were labeling him 'The King' and saying he's going to be the next Dwight Gooden," Washburn said. "Yeah, he has that potential, and I think he's going to get there. But to expect that at 20 years old was a little bit too much pressure. It's ridiculous for people to be disappointed over what he's done so far. He's accomplished quite a bit already at this level, and he's only going to get better."
Hernandez, whose commitment to conditioning has waned on occasion, arrived in camp in good shape last spring and looks even fitter and trimmer this year. Now. it's simply a matter of staying healthy and harnessing his otherworldly stuff from one outing to the next.
"He's had to learn some things on the major league level," McLaren said. "It's called trial and error. He gets excited sometimes and his emotions get the better of him, and we've talked about it. It's been addressed, and he's working hard at it."
Good luck finding an American League lineup that's enthused about the prospect of facing Bedard and Hernandez back-to-back in a series. With the possible exception of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona in Cleveland, Webb and Haren in Arizona and Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum in San Francisco, there might not be a one-two combination in the majors that elicits more discomfort.
Of course, pitching alone won't get the Mariners over the hump. Seattle's 794-813 run differential last year was not a good thing, Pythagorean theorem-wise. The team's main power threat, Richie Sexson, batted .205, and designated hitter Jose Vidro contributed six home runs in 548 at-bats. The Mariners tied for 11th in the majors in on-base percentage while ranking 30th in walks, so this is a team that has to hit its way on base.
Those are concerns for hitting coach Jeff Pentland to address. As for Stottlemyre, he might be paying dividends already. Washburn, by his own admission, has had a devil of a time developing a consistent changeup in his career. On the first day of spring training, Stottlemyre showed him a new changeup grip that yielded promising results.
"It's been a career-long problem for me, but hopefully Mel can help me fix that," Washburn said. "So far, it feels pretty good."
Stottlemyre realizes he has lost a step at age 66, but he's not lacking in enthusiasm. Although it's been 7½ years since he underwent a stem cell transplant and his first round of chemotherapy, he continues to take a cancer-fighting medication called Revlimid and have his white blood cell count checked monthly as a precaution. Although Stottlemyre maintains that his health is "good," he makes a point of knocking on the wood clubhouse door for luck.
He finds that the routine of putting on a uniform again and teaching is invigorating. Doing it for a club with postseason aspirations is gravy.
"It's like I told these guys in my opening talk, 'I didn't join this ballclub expecting any less than for us to reach the next level,'" Stottlemyre said.
The old master has a lot of knowledge left to share. And his pitchers are all ears.
1dJesse Rogers and Jerry Crasnick