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Blood Brothers

July 12, 2004
July 12, 2004

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July 12, 2004

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Blood Brothers

In English we have a word for disillusionment but not, oddly, for
its opposite: that moment when you meet a person whom you've
admired from afar, and he turns out to be kinder, more decent,
more heroic than you'd ever imagined.

This is an article from the July 12, 2004 issue Original Layout

And so I am literally at a loss for words when Mel Stottlemyre,
the Yankees' pitching coach, who suffers from a rare form of
blood cancer, says, "I understand your brother has it [too]." For
my brother does have multiple myeloma, and Stottlemyre's robust
trips to the pitcher's mound have been, for me and many others, a
nightly inspiration.

Mets hitting coach Don Baylor was diagnosed with multiple myeloma
in 2003, four years after Stottlemyre. "Since then, Mr. Baylor
has become a very special friend of mine," says Stottlemyre,
whose previous meetings with Baylor were from 60 feet, six inches
away. Says Baylor, standing with Stottlemyre in the bowels of
Shea Stadium, "In 1972, as a rookie [with the Orioles], I hit a
double off Mel at Yankee Stadium."

Multiple myeloma is the ampersand uniting all manner of
partisans: Yankee & Met, Coach & Sportswriter, Republican &
Democrat. When my oldest brother, Jim, was diagnosed in 2002, he
received a call from a stranger named Geraldine Ferraro, the
former vice-presidential nominee, who in 2001 revealed that she
too has the disease. "I didn't vote for her," Jim confesses, but
the two of them talked, like old friends, for 90 minutes.

Stottlemyre is 62 and Baylor is 55 and my brother is 43, but each
is an ex-jock and workaholic who makes Gary Cooper look
gregarious. "Work takes [Mel's] mind off everything," says Jean
Stottlemyre, whose husband had a bone-marrow transplant in 2000.
Same goes for Baylor, who had a bone-marrow transplant in
February. He tells his wife, every spring, "We interrupt this
marriage to bring you the baseball season." ("He really does say
that," says Becky Baylor.) And, Don adds, "I sort of treat [the
multiple myeloma] the same way."

"You wouldn't know Jim had anything unless you opened our
medicine cabinet and saw 11 bottles of pills," says Mary Jo
Rushin of her husband, my brother, who's had two bone-marrow
transplants but remains as upright and impassive as a totem pole.

Roughly 45,000 Americans have multiple myeloma. The average life
expectancy is four years, though the disease is highly
individualized. "It's important to remember that Mel, Don and
your brother are atypical patients," says yet another patient,
the heaven-sent Kathy Giusti, who cofounded the Multiple Myeloma
Research Foundation (www.multiplemyeloma.org) to raise money for
a cure. "It is often much more debilitating."

But then my big brother has always been freakishly strong. He was
a Torquemada of such teenage tortures as the Hertz Donut, the
Dutch Rub and the 99-Bump, which consisted of 99 blows to my
chicken-chest with the raised second knuckle of his middle
finger. (Even now I cannot hear 99 Luftballons or see a photo of
Wayne Gretzky without feeling chest pains.)

At Lincoln High in Bloomington, Minn., Jim set the bench-press
record, led the football team in tackles and, as a pitcher, owned
Kent Hrbek of rival Bloomington Kennedy. When I asked Hrbek, 15
years later in the Minnesota Twins' clubhouse, if he remembered
my brother, the two-time World Series champion sighed and said,
"He was a lefty with reddish hair." Jim's rust-colored Afro only
added to his aura, and even after his high school graduation, a
small photo of my brother deking a hockey goalie surmounted the
sports section of the Minneapolis Tribune.

Jim accepted a hockey scholarship to Providence, for whom he
played in the Frozen Four in 1983 under coach Lou Lamoriello, who
has gone on (as an executive) to lead the New Jersey Devils to
three Stanley Cup titles. To this day Lamoriello calls my brother
the best face-off man he ever saw--winning a draw being the one
activity to which a certain sports cliche applies: It really is
all about who wants it more.

Just before his first transplant, in April of last year, Jim
received an urgent message from Lamoriello, who said, "You have
to recover quickly. We're heading into the playoffs and might
need you to take face-offs." Jim replayed the voice mail for his
nine-year-old son, Jack. "The best part," says Jim, "was that
Jack really believed, for the rest of the playoffs, that the
Devils might actually call."

My brother now endures 22 pills a day, a cycle of steroids every
three weeks and, every three months, a bone-marrow biopsy that
has been described, aptly, as a full-body root canal. And, says
Mary Jo, "he has never once complained." Nor have the husbands of
Becky Baylor and Jean Stottlemyre. "I've never asked, 'Why me?'"
says Stottlemyre. "I mean, why not me? I'm just another human
being."

Of course, it's not strictly true that Jim never complains. He
did, once, on a family golf trip to Ireland, for which his
transplant surgeon had imposed on him a draconian ration of one
Guinness a day. I mentioned this cruelty in a column that week,
and when my brother returned to suburban Chicago for his next
appointment, his surgeon--the blessed Dr. Stephanie Williams of
Northwestern University hospital--met him with a copy of the
offending SI. Serving him the column as if it were a subpoena,
she said, "I'm trying to keep you alive, and you're complaining
about beer?"

He was. And we've never been more proud.

COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY
"I've never asked, 'Why me?'" says multiple myeloma patient
Stottlemyre. "I mean, why not me?"