Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Baylor, Stottlemyre share struggle with Myeloma

They faced one another in 1972, veteran right-hander versus rookie slugger. Batting behind Brooks Robinson in the Baltimore Orioles lineup, Don Baylor hit two doubles, despite New York Yankees starter Mel Stottlemyre's best efforts to back those elbows off the plate.

"He was tough," Stottlemyre recalled Monday. "He was fearless. He was a terrific player."

He is also a "terrific person," Stottlemyre said, which helps explain why, some three decades after their on-field encounters, the men are friends. Now, though, their relationship is rooted in something more emotional and complex than the game that has been their livelihood.

They each suffer from multiple myeloma, an incurable but treatable cancer of the plasma cells. Both were diagnosed after spring training physicals: Stottlemyre in 1999, Baylor four years later.

Shared experiences -- pills and biopsies taken, cell counts, doctor visits -- have built a bond between the men that stretches across the continent. Baylor is in his first season as the Mariners' hitting coach, while Stottlemyre, an Issaquah resident, rides through a tumultuous tenth -- and quite possibly final -- summer as the Yankees' pitching coach.

Both have undergone stem-cell transplants, and their cancers are in remission. Stottlemyre, 63, said he is "fine" but acknowledged the disease has made his days a "constant battle." Baylor, 56, does not even take prescription drugs for the condition, since his cell counts have returned to normal.

"My bones are as hard as a rock," Baylor said. "Every time I have a biopsy, the doctors are doing hand exercises a week, ten days out."

Work leaves Baylor and Stottlemyre breathlessly busy for most months every year, often too tied up to keep in touch. Although they were in the same building Monday evening, they were unable to find time to talk.

There was a time, though, when Baylor deeply needed Stottlemyre's counsel. Two years ago, shortly after he arrived at spring training for his first season as the New York Mets' bench coach, team doctors sent Baylor back to New York for tests. Baylor spent two long, awful days "in that tube," as MRIs were administered.

Doctors discovered a lesion on his hip, which was their basis for the diagnosis. As he came to grips with the news, Baylor needed answers -- not all of which doctors could provide. He sought out Stottlemyre.

"He helped me deal with the uncertainty," Baylor said. "The doctors can tell you one thing, but you don't really know until you speak with someone who's experienced it.

"Mel gave us a step-by-step. It was good to know."

Baylor also asked Stottlemyre about the decision to go public with his diagnosis. Stottlemyre waited one year before speaking publicly about it during an April 9, 2000, news conference at Safeco Field. Baylor discussed his condition with Mets personnel and reporters soon after the diagnosis in March 2003.

One consequence of disclosing his condition, Baylor said, was the potential impact it could have on his future employment. As a former American League MVP who has won 627 games as a big-league manager, he is qualified for most any job in baseball, provided he remains healthy.

For his own reassurance, Baylor could point to his friend's example.

"I looked at Mel," Baylor said. "He was healthy. I was banking on that."

Since then, Baylor and Stottlemyre have joined their efforts in aiding the Multiple Myeloma Research Foundation. They appeared with Kathy Giusti, the organization's CEO and founder, and their respective doctors as part of a first-pitch fundraiser before a Mets-Yankees game at Shea Stadium last season.

"The truth is, to run a good research foundation, you need people like Mel and Don to be public, and it's not always fun to be public," said Giusti, whose organization has raised $50 million since 1998. "I have great respect for them."

Former foes, now friends fighting a disease, they continue inspiring in ways they never could with a ball and bat.

© 1998-2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer


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