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Some fathers face extreme challenges

Some fathers face extreme challenges

PHOENIX -- Mel Stottlemyre Sr. and Don Baylor are the fortunate ones. Both these career baseball men were treated for Multiple Myeloma, an incurable cancer that attacks the production of plasma in the blood system. Both have far exceeded the mean prognosis of five years living with the disease.

On Father's Day, Major League Baseball annually highlights and donates money to the cure of prostate cancer. But Multiple Myeloma is another form of the disease, striking many people, mostly over 60 and a high percentage of them African Americans. The five-year survival rate is about 30 percent.

"My doctor in Florida told me that maybe I'd have a period of three years [to live]," said Stottlemyre, a consultant during this past Spring Training for the D-backs, recently reached by telephone at his home in Spokane, Wash. "I refused to believe that, No. 1, and I wanted a second opinion. Most of my positive attitude trying to overcome the disease I attribute to my doctor in New York."

"You pray a lot, I know that," said Baylor, the Rockies' hitting coach, who sat down for an interview when his club was in town a few weeks ago. "As far as relief, talking to Mel really helped, because it made me believe I'd get through this. He told me, 'Whatever the doctor tells you, do.' My wife was also with me every step of the way."

Stottlemyre was pitching coach for the Yankees in 1999 when he was diagnosed with the disease, just shortly after manager Joe Torre was told he had prostate cancer. Baylor was bench coach for the Mets in 2003 when he got the word.

Stottlemyre and Baylor were both treated at Sloan-Kettering, one of the world's most prestigious cancer centers located in midtown Manhattan. Both survived serious stem cell bone marrow transplants, a painful procedure in which the immune system is completely compromised and a person's own marrow is removed from the body, radiated, frozen and transplanted. Both were kept in isolation a prescribed period of time after the transplant to avoid germs, bacteria and other infectious diseases.

"You start with a blood count of zero," Stottelmyre said. "The toughest part of it for me was probably the first three days after the procedure waiting to show some white and red blood cells, so you'd have a positive blood count."

"I was inside for 17 days," Baylor said. "That was the hardest time. I got tired of watching Oprah and Dr. Phil."

Both ultimately went back to work and, with the help of drugs, regular blood tests, bone scans and doctor visits, have kept the disease at bay to this point.

Others weren't so lucky. Roger Neilson, then head coach of the National Hockey League's Philadelphia Flyers, was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma in 2000. After undergoing a transplant, the disease metastasized as skin cancer, and he died in 2003 at the age of 69.

Bill Mussleman, then an assistant coach for the National Basketball Association's Portland Trailblazers, was diagnosed with the disease in 2000 and was dead at 59 only a few months later.

The American Cancer Society says that 15 percent of people diagnosed with the disease pass away within a year of that diagnosis. Symptoms can range from pain in the back and ribs to fragile and breaking bones, plus excess bleeding.

Stottlemyre and Baylor said they were symptom-free when told they had Multiple Myeloma. In most cases with any cancer, early detections seems to be the key to long-term survival. In both men, the disease was diagnosed during routine Spring Training club physical exams that produced abnormal blood tests.

"The anxiety was overwhelming," said Baylor, who was in Florida for the physical and flew to New York for further tests. "They didn't tell me what they were looking for. I had a full body MRI. The next day, they gave me another MRI from the waist down, and they still didn't tell me what they were looking for. They didn't tell me until they were sure it was Multiple Myeloma."

In Stottlemyre's case, tests revealed a higher-than-normal protein level and cancer cells within that sample. A needle aspiration of his bone marrow confirmed the diagnosis. At the time, Stottlemyre was told the disease was in what he called a "smoldering" stage, and he chose to keep it quiet for more than a year. The only people who knew about it were his family, Torre and Don Zimmer, then the Yankees' bench coach.

"I had no symptoms whatsoever, and I was completely shocked," Stottlemyre said. "An absolute shock."

In the meantime, Torre underwent surgery to remove his prostate, missed Spring Training and the first few months of the 1999 season. Only in April 2000, when Stottlemyre began pre-bone marrow replacement chemotherapy did the issue become public.

"The cancer just remained the same. It wasn't aggressive," Stottlemyre said. "But my doctor and I had a plan during that period of time, heading toward the stem cell transplant. He assured me that that was my best case for long-term survival. When he put it that way, I had no second thoughts about trying to treat it any other way."

Stottlemyre already had had a young son die of leukemia, emotionally compounding his own predicament. He said his attitude early on could be characterized like this:

"I told my doctor, 'I promise you that if you'll be the best doctor you can be, I'll be the best patient that you've ever had. He sort of smiled and laughed at that, and said, 'That's a deal.' I really believed in everything they were doing, and I really believe that's a very important thing for any patient."

It's no wonder that when Baylor was diagnosed three years later, he almost immediately sought out Stottlemyre for advice. After scrolling the Internet and finding conflicting information, he was told that former Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro and Stottlemyre were fitting examples of patients surviving with Multiple Myeloma.

Ferraro was diagnosed with the disease in 1998 and with the help of an advanced and expensive drug, she is still living with it at age 74, far past the mean survival range. Ferraro originally was told that she had three to five years to live. At the time Baylor was diagnosed, Ferraro was in her fifth year. Stottlemyre was in his fourth after diagnosis.

"Mel was just across the way, so I picked up the phone and gave him a call," Baylor recalled. "He was a lifesaver for my wife and me. He gave us assurances about things. That Sloan-Kettering is one of the best places in not only New York, but in the world. I just tried to learn from Mel the steps I had to go through.

"I really didn't have any fear at all. Everybody hears the 'Big C,' and they get scared. My mom, Lillian, died of colon cancer at 59, so I was very well aware. I could finally take a sigh of relief, because I knew Mel had gone through it."

Baylor was a potent right-handed hitter, who batted .260 with 338 homers with six teams in his 19-year career. Stottlemyre, a right-handed pitcher of some acclaim, was 164-139 with a 2.97 ERA in 11 seasons, all for the Yankees, when his career ended in 1975, due to a bum right shoulder. As men who played at a high level, they were already accustomed to taking things day-to-day and never getting too high or low. That ingrained attitude helped them cope with the hard times.

Today, soon to be 61, Baylor looks like his stocky self. He'd like to manage again, something he did for six years with the Rockies and three more with the Cubs, ending in 2002, a year before he was diagnosed. Stottlemyre, at 68, is retired. During Spring Training, he looked healthy and fit. His son, Mel Jr., is in his first full season as D-backs pitching coach. It was a joy for them to work together.

"I was there for six weeks, and it was a real boost to me that I could still do that," Stottelmyre said. "I had no problem at all during the spring."

His lone physical problem is lingering numbness in the toes and some tingling in the hands that won't ever go away, caused by nerve damage brought on by one of the wonder drugs that has helped keep him alive.

"I'm kind of cautious now every time I walk," he said. "But that's a small price to pay, I think, for me to feel so good everywhere else."

Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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