Thursday, January 17, 2019

A Fan's Ode To Mel Stottlemyre

Passionate baseball fans fall in love with baseball players. Or they do not. We all have different ways that asserts itself meaning that a player I love might be a player you hate. Most of that passion is for players on your favorite team. Some players--say a Mike Trout--transcend the team orientation and are universally loved. And some are universally hated. Barry Bonds was probably in that category. Dave Winfield's constant smile won most over and Randy Johnson's constant scowl turned most people off.  The reason I am thinking about all of this is for a story in the Yankee universe this week: the passing of Mel Stottlemyre.

Before I delve into those that story, I will digress a bit on how being a fan of baseball players has changed. I have been a fan a long time--well over half a century. Growing up, the most important part of any week was getting The Sporting News in the mail. That weekly was our source of statistics and stories about players on every team. It gave me many happy hours of reading. Since it was delivered in large newspaper format, the end of the reading left your hands black with newspaper ink.

I filled scrapbooks of pictures of the players that I would cut out of the weekly. Each team had its own pages. I knew all of the players on every team. I did not really know them. I knew whatever the team's PR department wanted me to know. But you got a feel for who was who, what they meant to their teams, how hard they worked and it felt intimate. There were also baseball cards. They were a must and you would mark the ones you had on the checklists that were provided.

There was little national coverage. You had the Saturday game of the week, the All Star Game and the World Series. That was it. So you watched the league your favorite team played but not the other league.

I mentioned the statistics. They were always interesting to me. They fascinated me. I believe the love of them helped me get high scores on the math portion of the SAT. To this day I can tell you the batting average of a guy with one hit in anywhere from one at bat to twenty. I still know how to figure out ERA and slugging percentage. But the numbers were a way of ranking players but had little to do with how you rooted for them.

Maybe that was just me. It was a way I worked around the fact that my favorite team stunk every year. Pretty much all of the players were terrible on the Yankees during the years from 1965 onward, so I rooted for the players we had. When I kept score to a WPIX broadcast, I was happy that Stick Michael got a hit and not much thought was into what he did not hit pretty much most of the time.

I think it is different now. The constant information, the 24/7 sports media, up-to-the-minute statistical breakdowns and scouting reports for MiLB players never existed back then. Players are dissected and valued or not valued based on the lab results. We know what young players to root for because we have been anticipating them for years and have followed their progress. Players are commodities for our fantasy leagues and our betting.

The point is that if you were an Orioles' fan last year, you did not like the crappy players because everyone pointed out how crappy they were. You did not like the crappy players as much as the good players like I did when I was young.

But you did realize, even back then, when a player was really good and sometimes those players became your idols. Bobby Murcer was one of those for me and so was Mel Stottlemyre. When the latter pitched, you payed even more attention.

Mel Stottlemyre was not exciting. He was like a metronome. He was constant. He always kept the Yankees in the game. He was not flashy. In a day where they did not have today's fielding charts to determine where to place fielders, Mel Stottlemyre got the other team to hit the ball to his fielders...consistently.

Take 1969, for example. It was the first year without Mickey Mantle. The Yankees had no offense. The team's OPS+ was 86. Roy White was their best hitter. Joe Pepitone led the team with 27 homers. The 1969 Yankees finished fifth in a six-team A.L. East and ended up 28.5 games behind the division winning Baltimore Orioles. The team went 80-81.

Mel Stottlemyre started 39 of those games. 39! He finished 24 of them. The team's record when he pitched was 23-15. That was a .590 winning percentage for a team that finished under .500. Stottlemyre went 20-14 that season and pitched 303 innings. In 23 of his starts, his team scored three runs or less. It was the third and last time he won 20 games. He struck out only 3.4 batters per nine innings. It was not Randy Johnson-esque. But it worked. Stottlemyre made $53 thousand dollars that year.

Beginning in 1965, Stottlemyre made between 35 and 39 starts for nine straight seasons and pitched between 251 to 303 innings. In those nine seasons, he won 149 games and completed 141 starts including 38 shutouts. Most of those nine seasons were pitching for a terrible to mediocre team. Only in 1970 and 1972 did his teams have decent seasons.

He was a rock for us fans. He was stoic, workmanlike and reliable. He went out there every fourth day and gave his teams a chance. He fielded his position well and was a pretty good hitter for a pitcher (seven homers). Of course we would would idolize the guy. Despite pitching only nine full seasons and two partial seasons, Stottlemyre compiled 43.2 rWAR. He is definitely in the Hall Of Very Good.

It did not end well for Mel Stottlemyre in New York. His shoulder fell off in 1974 and the team said thank you very much and dumped him to the curb. His passing was hardly noticed by Yankee fans (especially since he refused to come back for Old Timers Games) who saw the signs of a building franchise on its way to the top in 1977 and 78. Some of us missed the guy who got us all the way through the Horace Clarke days.

But then there he was with Joe Torre in 1996. His calm demeanor matched Torre's and they were the quiet leaders of the beginning of the Core Four (it should be five or six) dynasty. Steinbrenner could do what he wanted and spout off but Torre and Stottlemyre and Zimmer made a strong team stronger. Stottlemyre and Zimmer finally tired of the owner and split. But the pitching coach, when he was there, was the same guy and brought continuity to the teams of my younger days.

After his passing, there feels like a need to thank Mel Stottlemyre for that continuity of excellence and stability. He was strong through his career and strong through the illness that ultimately took his life. He was a man to look up to and emulate. He taught by doing without being flashy. And for nine years, he was the source of many a pleasant summer afternoon and evenings either listening to him pitch on the radio, watching on Channel 11 or at the Stadium itself.