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Against all Odds Diamondbacks righthander Todd Stottlemyre is trying to do what no one before him has ever done: pitch effectively with a torn rotator cuff

Feb. 28, 2000
Feb. 28, 2000

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Feb. 28, 2000

Against all Odds Diamondbacks righthander Todd Stottlemyre is trying to do what no one before him has ever done: pitch effectively with a torn rotator cuff

The night before a scheduled start, Todd Stottlemyre begins to
ignore his wife.

This is an article from the Feb. 28, 2000 issue Original Layout

Honey, can you pass the Doritos?

Mmmm.

Honey, you have a crumb on your chin.

Mmmm.

Honey, I think there's a nitric acid leak in the kitchen.

Mmmm.

The next morning Sheri Stottlemyre ceases to exist. She is
invisible--like the H.G. Wells character but without the
emotional quirks. "I don't disturb him, I don't bother him, I
don't ask him what he wants for breakfast, and I don't ask how
he's feeling," she says. "I understand."

So do his teammates. As Stottlemyre walks through the Arizona
Diamondbacks' clubhouse, they avoid him like the Ebola virus.
You do not speak to Todd Stottlemyre on game day. You do not
smile at Todd Stottlemyre on game day. If you are a reporter,
you do not ask him questions. In the four hours before his first
pitch Todd Stottlemyre is at work. He is thinking of every
reason to hate the opposing team. Player by player, position by
position, peeve by peeve.

Rickey Henderson: five years ago, stole a base off me in a
blowout. Jerk.

Edgardo Alfonzo: slow home run trot. Cocky.

Todd Zeile: enjoys Punky Brewster reruns. Must be beaned.

Stottlemyre does not like card games before his starts. He
despises batting-cage fraternization with the opposing team. He
is a robot. A machine. A....

!Senor Stottlemyre! !Senor Stottlemyre! ?Un autografo, por favor?

Twenty or so members of a Mexican all-star baseball team were
crowding into the tiny clubhouse of the Rookie League Tucson
Diamondbacks. Some held cameras; others, pens and scraps of
paper. It was the morning of Aug. 4, 1999. The occasion was
Stottlemyre's first rehab start since a torn rotator cuff in his
right shoulder had been diagnosed 2 1/2 months earlier. A few
hours before the game there was something of an ambush. One
minute, Stottlemyre was frozen in his chair, burning holes
through the wall with his blue eyes, finding reasons to hate
players he'd never heard of. The next, Fiesta Blast '99 at
Electric Park. "So here are these guys taking pictures, wrapping
their arms around me...before the game," he recalls. "Normally,
I'd be pissed as hell. I mean, I was pitching against them."
Somehow, this was different. Stottlemyre's nervous energy
vanished. "When I went to the bullpen, I thought I was going to
get killed because I'd lost my edge," he says. "But I relaxed,
and it turned out to be a great day for me." In four innings he
allowed the Mexicans one run and three hits. "It was my biggest
step."

Because he is Todd Stottlemyre and not, say, Pedro Martinez or
David Cone, few people realize the significance of the shoulder
surgery that never took place. But just wait until the end of
this season, when--assuming Stottlemyre wins his standard 12 to
15 games--the Stott Program will go down with Tommy John surgery
in baseball medical lore. Last May 20 Stottlemyre was told he
had a 70% tear in his right rotator cuff, as well as a partially
torn labrum (the cartilage around the joint). Over his 12-year,
five-team major league career, he had been a model of
consistency and dependability. From 1990 to '98 he had always
started at least 25 games, never winning more than 15 or fewer
than 11 (except in the strike-shortened '94 season, when he went
7-7). Upon signing a four-year, $32 million contract with the
Diamondbacks after the '98 season, he had been considered the
perfect addition to the second-year franchise: a feisty veteran
with three above-average pitches (fastball, curveball, slider)
who knew how to win. Then, eight starts into last season,
Stottlemyre ran into trouble. On May 17 he woke up with a sore
shoulder. It was cold and windy in San Francisco, however, and
many a pitcher has felt a little stiff in the Bay Area's often
hostile elements. That day, against the Giants, Stottlemyre felt
O.K. for three innings. In the fourth his arm weakened. A
fastball to Ellis Burks hit 82 mph on the radar. The next
fastball hit 80. Stottlemyre walked out to start the fifth, but
manager Buck Showalter persuaded him to sit back down. "Todd,"
notes Showalter, "hates to come out of a game."

After seeing results of an MRI and realizing that Stottlemyre's
career could be over, David Zeman, the Diamondbacks' team
doctor, called the pitcher into his office. As far as anyone
knows, no pitcher has ever returned from a torn rotator cuff
without surgery followed by a one- or two-year layoff. But Zeman
knew of Stottlemyre's intensity. He also knew that,
theoretically, one could strengthen the body enough--maybe, in
the best-case, one-in-a-million scenario--to pitch with the
tear. But it would take unyielding dedication; insane weight
work; ungodly attention to mechanics.

"Dr. Zeman wouldn't guarantee that if they operated, I would be
able to come back and pitch the same way," Stottlemyre says. "He
said if I made it back from surgery in a year and a half, that
would be a great thing. I was thinking, Damn, that doesn't sound
too good. He said there was one option. I could give it six
weeks, work as hard as I could, get as strong as I could and see
if my body rebounded. The way I looked at it was, What is six
weeks?"

So Stottlemyre, Zeman and the Diamondbacks' trainers, Paul
Lessard and Dave Edwards, came up with a plan based on eight
exercises that would strengthen the muscles surrounding
Stottlemyre's right rotator cuff. Most of the workouts were
extremely basic--varieties of dumbbell curls and elastic
pulls--yet extremely strenuous. Over the weeks the routines
expanded from eight to 20 to, now, more than 50 exercises that
make up the Stott Program. Six days a week, four to six hours a
day, Stottlemyre was in the weight room, adding 17 pounds of
muscle that bulked him up to 206. Three days a week he would
focus on the upper body. Three days a week he would focus on the
legs and torso. The goal went from simply enhancing muscles near
the rotator cuff to strengthening every muscle in the body,
turning it into a machine whose different parts all helped
compensate for the tear.

Stottlemyre not only got stronger but also changed his approach
to throwing. Instead of relying only on his arm, he began paying
more attention to his legs, his trunk. In the old days he would
naturally fall toward first after releasing the ball. That put
extra strain on the rotator cuff. Now his motion sends him
straight forward. "You can throw a baseball much more
effectively, and efficiently, if everything's working together,"
he says. "I used to just get up and throw."

There were lots of milestones on the road back to the mound: the
first time he played catch after the injury (June 22); the day
after that, when his arm wasn't sore; the first game he started,
against the Mexican all-stars (Aug. 4); the two other rehab
starts (Aug. 9 and 14); the day he walked into the Arizona
clubhouse as a member of the team once again (Aug. 19).

On Aug. 20 Stottlemyre made his return start for the
Diamondbacks, against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Three Rivers
Stadium. He did not pitch well. His fastball was up, his
curveball flat. In 4 2/3 innings he allowed seven hits and five
runs, including two homers by Brian Giles. But he will always
remember the looks on his teammates' faces when he took the
mound: a combination of joy and disbelief. "You do not return
from a torn rotator cuff," says outfielder Luis Gonzalez. "You
just don't--not like Stott did."

After that Stottlemyre went 2-1 in seven starts, and on Oct. 6
he pitched 6 2/3 innings of a 7-1 Diamondbacks win over the New
York Mets in Game 2 of the National League Divisional Series. He
allowed one run and four hits, with a fastball that reached 94
mph ("The fastest I've ever thrown," he says) and a nasty snake
of a slider, and picked up the win.

"Stott doesn't always show his emotions, but that game meant
everything to him," says Darren Holmes, the Diamondbacks
reliever and Stottlemyre's closest friend on the club. "He
carries a lot of weight around--his desire to win, his
intensity--but he always finds a way to overcome."

Perhaps the first time Todd Stottlemyre was universally
recognized as a bit of a basket case was in 1993, when--in the
midst of helping the Toronto Blue Jays win their second World
Series, against the Philadelphia Phillies--he was insulted by
Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell, who publicly said that he'd enjoy
hitting off the then-struggling righthander. After the Series
was over, courtesy of Joe Carter's dramatic Game 6 homer,
Stottlemyre addressed a packed SkyDome. Rendell, he said, "can
kiss my ass."

This is Stottlemyre: charitable (he once gave $1 million to the
United Way), good-hearted ("An amazing father to our daughter,"
says Sheri) but as cute and cuddly as a piranha. Early last
season, in a Diamondbacks-Giants game, San Francisco's Charlie
Hayes reached first base by grounding into a fielder's choice
and then muttered some self-punishing obscenities. Stottlemyre,
standing on the mound, thought Hayes was spewing his way.

Stottlemyre: "F--- you."

Hayes: "F--- me?"

Stottlemyre: "Yeah, f--- you."

Hayes: "O.K. I'll knock you out."

Stottlemyre: "Yeah, you knock me out."

After Hayes reached second on a single, he charged Stottlemyre
and knocked him to the ground. After the game, Hayes spoke for
many: "I don't like him. I don't think anybody likes him. Who
does he think he is, Sandy Koufax? He talks like he's Bob Gibson
or somebody, [but] I'm the only one he can get out."

A month earlier Stottlemyre had ripped the Chicago Cubs' Sammy
Sosa after Sosa homered twice off him, then bowed to the spring
training crowd. Later in the season, after the Florida Marlins'
Cliff Floyd hit a towering two-run homer off him, Stottlemyre
screamed as Floyd casually crossed home plate, "Let's go! Run
the bases!"

"I don't know what the hell's wrong with him," Floyd said. "I
think he's crazy."

Holmes recalls a moment from the 1998 American League Divisional
Series, in which he played for the New York Yankees and
Stottlemyre for the Texas Rangers. Chad Curtis, a Yankees
outfielder, swung wildly at a pitch and lost his bat, which
landed near the mound. Stottlemyre picked up the wood, took two
steps toward the Yankees dugout and chucked it at his rivals. "I
competed against him, and I couldn't stand him," says Holmes.
"He just had this air on the mound, like he owned it. But at the
same time I loved his competitiveness. He's a warrior."

Although the 34-year-old Stottlemyre is a jock by heritage (his
father, Mel, the Yankees' pitching coach, won 164 games with the
Bombers from 1964 to '74; Todd's older brother, Mel Jr.,
appeared in 13 games for the Kansas City Royals in 1990), his
me-against-the-world athletic demeanor dates back to 1981, when
he was 15. Until that time, according to Mel Sr., Todd had been
a tough competitor but hardly fierce. That year, however, Todd's
younger brother, Jason, died of leukemia at age 11. Jason was
Todd's best friend. For five years he had been in and out of
hospitals, good days followed by bad days. "He was such an
awesome kid," recalls Todd. "It didn't matter what he did, he
was great at it. He was such a good-natured person." Days before
his death, Jason received a bone-marrow transplant that doctors
hoped would save him. It didn't. Instead of returning home,
Jason went into a coma. Two days later he died. The bone marrow
was Todd's.

"I felt responsible for a long time," Todd says. "It was a
tremendous amount of guilt." He is sitting by his locker in the
huge purple-and-white Diamondbacks clubhouse, spitting tobacco
juice into a garbage can. The room is empty. The tough man's
eyes are turning red. Tears gather in the corners. He puts his
hands to his head. "Not a day goes by that I don't think about
him. For me to think for so long that I had something to do with
his dying, because the marrow--my marrow--didn't take. It was
tough." Suddenly he stops crying. A smile appears on his face.
"I realize he's in a better place, probably watching this,
laughing," Stottlemyre says. "I see him chasing butterflies with
his net. He liked butterflies."

Ever since Jason's death, Mel Sr. says, Todd has done anything
and everything to win. No matter the nature of the
competition--cards, hunting, fishing, baseball--he gets no joy
from placing second. "The intensity became magnified after we
lost our son," Mel says. "I think a lot of it was there before,
but it hadn't all come out. I remember when Todd was in high
school, I had to talk him out of playing football. He was so
no-holds-barred, I was afraid he'd kill himself."

The tragedy also made a close family even closer. After that
baseball season Mel resigned as a roving minor league pitching
instructor with the Seattle Mariners. For the next two years he
stayed home in Yakima, Wash., operating the family
sporting-goods business while working with his two boys on their
games. Mel Jr., two years older than Todd, was a catcher and
pitcher. Todd pitched too but was also a fleet-footed little
second baseman and shortstop. As a sophomore at Davis High, he
was 5'7" and weighed 140 pounds. "People may think I'm tough,"
Todd says, "but I've never won a fight in my life. In school I
picked fights all the time, and I'd always get beat up."

The summer before Todd's junior year, his American Legion team
needed an emergency arm in a tournament game. Throwing all
fastballs, he pitched two scoreless innings. Still, he did not
become a regular member of the Davis High staff until his senior
year, when he went 10-0 with an 0.72 ERA. After pitching one
season at UNLV, he was selected by Toronto early in the
secondary phase of the '85 draft. It wasn't that he had amazing
velocity or terribly nasty stuff. He simply had, as a result of
Mel Sr.'s teachings, good location and pitch selection. "My
father is my best friend," says Todd. "I credit him with a lot
of things--teaching me how to be a smart pitcher, showing me how
to control my emotions. Most of all, he's a great listener. He's
one of the wisest people you'll meet."

Last May, before he decided against having surgery, Todd called
his father. In 1974 Mel Sr. had torn his rotator cuff. It was
three months into the season, just one year after he had won 16
games for a Yankees team that went 80-82. At the time there was
no Frank Jobe, certainly no David Zeman. Mel Sr.'s career was
over; he was 32. And Mel Jr. underwent a pair of rotator cuff
surgeries that killed his career in the early 1990s. Hence, Mel
Sr. was initially skeptical about Todd's plan for a miracle
recovery. He spoke with his son of the risks: His arm could give
out at any time, and the rotator cuff could tear all the way
through.

"A lot of time Todd will ask my advice," says Mel, "but this
time it was more of a discussion. He felt he owed Arizona the
effort to pitch last season. I knew the effort would be there,
but I had my doubts." In that postseason game against the Mets,
Mel watched every pitch, not as a concerned dad but as a proud
one. "I made myself enjoy it," he says. "That was a crowning
moment for my son. It was a crowning moment for me too."

Yet Todd refuses to crown himself a complete success, the King
of Comebacks. There is a harsh reality to the rotator cuff: Once
it is torn, surgery or no surgery, it's never the same. "Todd's
territory is uncharted," says Lessard, the trainer. "There's no
book that'll tell us how the story ends."

Last Friday, when the Diamondbacks opened camp in Tucson,
Stottlemyre threw normally and uneventfully. He says he is in
the best shape of his life. He says it over and over. A
reminder. A reaffirmation. But he knows that any one pitch
can--snap!--be his last. "I can do as much training as I want,
and there's still a good amount of vulnerability," he says.

He will continue his exercise regimen through the season. "I
know what I'm dealing with," he says, "but I've been to the
World Series, and I want to get there again--not as a spectator,
but on the mound."

Still sitting by his locker, he gently scratches his right arm
and says, "I have to believe that will happen."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY CHIP SIMONS Muscle man Stottlemyre hopes he has developed enough overall strength to compensate for his injured shoulder.COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Armed and dangerous Before his injury (above) Stottlemyre's motion didn't take full advantage of the power of his legs and torso.B/W PHOTO: UPICOLOR PHOTO: SCOTT TROYANOS Springing back On the first day of camp, Diamondbacks pitching coach Mark Connor monitored Stottlemyre for any hints of strain.COLOR PHOTO: CHIP SIMONS

Like Father, Like Son

Arizona's Todd Stottlemyre and his dad, Mel (right), are the
only father-and-son duo with 100 or more major league victories
apiece. They also have more combined career wins than any other
such twosome.

FATHER AND SON FATHER'S WINS SON'S WINS COMBINED WINS

Mel and Todd Stottlemyre 164 129 293
Paul and Steve Trout 170 88 258
Jim Bagby Sr. and Jr. 111 97 208
Ed Walsh Sr. and Jr. 195 11 206
Joe Coleman Sr. and Jr. 52 142 194
Thornton and Don Lee 117 40 157
Clyde and Jaret Wright 100 28 128
Pedro Borbon Sr. and Jr. 69 9 78
Lew Krausse Sr. and Jr. 5 68 73
Herman and Duane Pillette 34 38 72

"I competed against him, and I couldn't stand him," says Holmes.
"He had this air on the mound, like he owned it."
"Todd's territory is uncharted," says Lessard, the Arizona
trainer. "There's no book that tells us how the story ends."