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Destiny’s Child Has Grown Up : Todd Stottlemyre Pitches to Uphold Family Tradition

Times Staff Writer

As he stands on the mound, lines of intensity etched in his brow, his eyes stubborn in their concentration, one cannot help but be reminded of another place and time.

Yankee Stadium. May 20, 1965. The Yankees, in the midst of an important series with the Boston Red Sox, sent 23-year-old right-hander Mel Stottlemyre to the mound. He confused the Boston hitters with his assortment of sinkers and sliders and the Yankees went on to win, 6-3.

But the cigars Stottlemyre handed out in the clubhouse after the game had nothing to do with the victory. He had received word early that morning from his home in Sunnyside, Wash., that his wife had delivered a son, Todd Vernon.

It was an appropriate entrance. Practically as soon as he was old enough to walk, Todd Vernon believed he was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps.

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“There’s no doubt that it’s always been a dream. When my dad was with the Yankees, I guess I always fantasized that I was playing then,” Stottlemyre said. “Through high school, legion ball and stuff like that, I had one goal, and that was to play major league baseball.”

Todd Stottlemyre, in his first professional season, may not have long to wait to fulfill that dream. He was the Toronto Blue Jays’ No. 1 selection in the 1985 secondary phase of the June draft and started his professional career this year with the Ventura County Gulls, Toronto’s affiliate in the Class-A California League.

The 21-year-old right-hander is 9-4 with a 2.43 earned-run average and has 104 strikeouts in 103 innings. But California League batters need worry little longer about Stottlemyre.

The Toronto front office confirmed Friday that Stottlemyre is headed to Knoxville, Toronto’s Double-A team, probably making the move next week. Stottlemyre could be making his final start for Ventura County today at Stockton.

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“There’s no doubt in my mind that I can contribute at the Double-A level,” Stottlemyre said. “I feel strongly about it and I’m glad they have the confidence in me to make the move.”

Stottlemyre has been eager to make sports headlines since he pitched his first game at the age of 4. He had accompanied his father down to Florida for spring training, and began pitching for a pee wee league team. That was to become an annual trip for Todd and his older brother Mel, neither of whom had what could be termed a normal childhood. They would go to school for a few months in Sunnyside, continue at a school in Florida in the spring and spend the summer and fall at their home in Englewood, N.J., where they had a tutor.

They didn’t mind, however, as long as they were playing baseball. Whether in spring training, at Yankee Stadium or in their backyard in Englewood, they were constantly after their father to hit them ground balls or pitch batting practice.

“He never pushed it on us or anything, but he saw the interest we took and that we were always more serious about the game growing up than other kids were,” Todd said. “We had a lot of fun but we always wanted to do real well. The main thing growing up was, Dad always said, ‘Just have fun.’ ”

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Mel Sr., now a 44-year-old pitching coach for the New York Mets, welcomed their interest in baseball.

“It sort of put a stamp of approval on what I had done with my life,” he said. “But I tried especially hard not to push them.”

He didn’t need to worry about that. They pushed each other pretty hard.

“We were always very competitive toward each other and with each other,” Todd said. “Of course, we got in a lot of battles. I mean, when we played against each other maybe in a game of basketball or wiffle ball in the front yard, a lot of times it would end up in a fight because one of us was beating the other. There was no letting the other guy win.”

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Mel Jr., 22, pitches for the Osceola Astros, the team’s Class-A affiliate in the Florida State League. Mel was drafted in the first round by the Astros, making them the first brother combination in history to go in the first round of the same draft. Mel said the rivalry continued even when they were college teammates in 1984 at Nevada Las Vegas.

Mel was the staff ace that year with a 13-4 record, but Todd (10-4) was a close second, pitching a two-hitter in his first game against Arizona and a one-hitter against Nebraska.

“We’d fight all the time to see who was better,” Mel Jr. said. “Even in college, there was that sense of competition. If he pitched a great game, I’d go out and try to do better, and I think that helped us both improve.”

The Stottlemyres had played on several teams together--Little League, high school, American Legion--and the comparisons never stopped.

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“Everyone always wanted to know who threw harder, who had the better record, but we didn’t pay too much attention to that,” Todd said. “We knew that we’re two different people and we’re two different pitchers. No doubt about that. We talked about it a lot and said, ‘Just try and be yourself. Don’t try to outdo the other guy.’ ”

The brothers may be competitive but they are close, and family-minded--especially since their younger brother died five years ago of leukemia. “I think that was a big part of bringing our family real close together,” Todd Stottlemyre said.

Closeness comes at a price--large phone bills. The brothers pitch in leagues 3,000 miles apart but still call each other after each start to compare statistics and offer encouragement.

Last year, it was Mel who did most of the encouraging. After his freshman season with UNLV, Todd transferred to Yakima Valley College in Washington for the 1985 season in order to become eligible for the major league draft. Suffering from arm weariness, he walked almost as many as he struck out, compiling a 7-4 record.

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“His season with us was a disappointment to me and to him,” Yakima Valley Coach Bill Saller said. “He had a lot of trouble with his mechanics. The ball was up a lot, and I think he was impatient about getting his velocity back up.”

But when the Cardinals scouted him that year, he threw a three-hitter and recorded 17 strikeouts while being clocked close to 90 m.p.h. The Cardinals went on to make Stottlemyre their first pick in the 1985 January draft.

Stottlemyre’s spring wildness was enough to scare off the Cardinals, who didn’t sign him. But the Blue Jays, whose scouts had been watching him since his days in high school, remained interested.

The Blue Jays’ patience paid dividends. Six Toronto scouts watched him last summer in a semipro league where he showed no traces of a sore arm, and he was signed in August. For three months in the fall in the Instructional League, he worked on his curveball and changeup with minor league pitching instructor Mel Queen.

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Gulls Manager Glenn Ezell got his first look at Stottlemyre when pitchers and catchers reported to spring training at the end of February. Ezell, too, urged Stottlemyre to work on his curveball.

“We’ve been talking about his curveball quite a bit, and we have to give Todd all the credit for going out there and throwing it in game situations and getting a good feel for it,” Ezell said. “And I would never tell him not to throw it, because we’re in a development stage here, and it’s important that he does use that pitch in order to advance in his career.”

Before, Stottlemyre had relied solely on speed, but he realizes he must develop his breaking ball.

“There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “Look how hard guys like Dwight Gooden and Roger Clemens throw and they still need to throw their breaking ball. Games where Dwight doesn’t get his curve over, he’s in a little bit of trouble.”

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It’s just like Stottlemyre to look to the best for inspiration. Gooden has become his idol, surpassing childhood heroes Bobby Murcer, Thurman Munson and Catfish Hunter of the Yankees. He met Gooden in 1984, when he stayed with the Mets for a month to work out with his father.

The Mets were in the heat of a pennant race with the Chicago Cubs, and Todd hung around the clubhouse, watching and learning.

“It was fun seeing their reactions after winning and losing games,” he said. “Watching guys going through slumps or guys doing well, what kind of person they were when they were doing well and what kind of person they were when they were doing bad.”

Stottlemyre also got an education in pitching from a staff which included Gooden, Ron Darling, Walt Terrell, Sid Fernandez and Jesse Orosco.

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“The thing I picked up was that each pitcher did something a little bit different. Each had maybe his own thing that got him into the big leagues, like Orosco with that really good slider, and Dwight, of course, well, everything,” he said.

Oddly, Stottlemyre became a pitcher by accident. He was a second baseman until his American Legion team ran out of pitchers in the regional finals. Stottlemyre told his coach that he could go in there and at least throw strikes, which he did, pitching 3 innings of shutout relief for the win.

The same thing happened in the state playoffs. His team ran out of pitchers, and it was Stottlemyre to the rescue, pitching four innings of shutout ball in relief for his second win. The following summer, he was 14-0 in legion ball, and followed with a 10-0 record in his last year of high school.

“I always kind of wanted to be an infielder, even up to my senior year,” Stottlemyre said. “But there was so much interest as far as scouts, and schools went for me to be a pitcher, so I went that way.”

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Does he ever regret the switch?

“When you’re pitching and having success, it’s the greatest thing in the world. But when you’re pitching and not having success, you’re saying, ‘Wow, I wish I played every day,’

“And pitching is definitely where the money is.”

All observers agree that Stottlemyre has the psychological makeup to be a pitcher. “When he’s in a baseball game, he’s a fierce competitor, and that’s real hard to teach,” Ezell said. “That’s one of the intangibles that good major league players have.”

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Off the field, however, he is soft-spoken and easygoing, the kind of guy who never misses the Gulls’ Sunday morning chapel service and swears he’ll never go near drugs.

Most of all, however, he’s a family man.

“My folks are in New Jersey, Mel’s in Florida and I’m out here in California, but we talk to each other at least once a week and we spend our winters together. I think that’s important. Christmas and Thanksgiving, we’re always together,” he said.

During the off-season last year, the Stottlemyre men did little else but hunt and fish. There is something else the Stottlemyres hope to do together.

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“I guess it would be kind of neat having my dad be a pitching coach in the big leagues and maybe Mel pitching for some team and I’m pitching for another team, or even the same team together,” Todd said. “I think it would be pretty neat, all three of us at the top of our game, at the top of the profession.”

“I look forward to that opportunity,” Mel Sr. says. “We’ve talked about it a lot and although it might be uncomfortable competing against them, it would be great. It’s one of my dreams.”


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