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Opinion

Mel Stottlemyre came to my rescue

The baseball pitcher and coach encouraged me through difficult cancer treatment

David Levine, left, with New York Mets pitching

David Levine, left, with New York Mets pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre at Mets fantasy camp in 1991 in Port St. Lucie, Fla. Photo Credit: From David Levine

I went to a New York Mets fantasy camp in 1991, an incredible experience. I was fortunate to be on a team whose pitching coach was Mel Stottlemyre, the former Yankees star pitcher and Mets and Yankees coach. I was saddened when Mel died of complications of multiple myeloma on Jan. 13 at age 77.

Throughout our week at the Mets training facility in Port St. Lucie, Florida, Mel was wonderful to all of us still-aspiring ballplayers.

He was warm, friendly and treated us as if we were major leaguers. He asked me whether I would like to pitch and proceeded to demonstrate how to throw a “two-seamer,” a fastball that tends to sink, as well as a straight four-seam fastball. I knew pretty quickly that pitching was not for me. At age 45, my experience in organized baseball was limited to a couple years in Little League in the Bronx, and softball games as an adult. I didn’t feel comfortable standing on the mound and risking hits actually coming back at me, so I chose to play second base. I still remember the celebratory dinner. My wife, Marilyn, made a surprise trip to attend.

Mel eventually left the Mets and became the pitching coach for the Yankees. I followed his career and knew about his diagnosis with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer, in April 2000, and how he took leave from the Yankees in August during a championship run to undergo a stem cell transplant.

In the summer of 2002, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and was told that I needed a stem cell transplant by the same group of doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center that had treated Mel.

This devastated me, and frankly, I became quite depressed. I vowed that somehow I would try to speak to Mel. Fortunately, the husband of a colleague at Baruch College in Manhattan, where I had been a professor of business statistics, was in the sports memorabilia business and got in touch with Mel’s agent. One day, my phone rang. Mel was calling from the Yankee locker room. I asked him to tell me everything about his treatment. He spent 30 minutes generously explaining all the details. I hung on every word.

He told me how well he was feeling and ended the conversation by giving me his home phone number! “I feel great, and I’m not retiring,” he told me.

This incredible experience lifted my spirits. Every time I saw Mel during games on TV as I awaited my transplant, I repeated to myself, “Look at Mel. If he can do it, so can I.”

I had the transplant in December 2003. During 16 days at Sloan Kettering, doctors removed stem cells from my blood and gave me chemotherapy to wipe out my immune system. They then injected the cells through a port in my chest to re-establish the immune system. Between procedures, I lay in bed in isolation, often feeling weak or unable to hold down food, and sometimes not interested in having visitors.

The great news is that my disease went into remission — and has remained so for 15 years. Since then, I have spoken to many patients who were about to endure stem cell transplants. I have been glad to encourage them and share how Mel did the same for me.

Reader David Levine lives in Glen Cove.

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