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.
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 clich� applies: It really is all about who wants it more.