OROFINO, Idaho — Their love of the game and their love of fishing was the guiding force that reunited Seattle Mariners pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. and long-time local fishing guide Rick Graser of Moses Lake for a day to remember, fishing for steelhead on the Clearwater River.
It was baseball where they first met and baseball where they reunited some 39 years later.
They first met in Bellingham where Graser was a hard-throwing, left-hander trying to make his way through the Seattle Mariners system in 1978. Former New York Yankee and longtime MLB pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Sr. (164 wins, five All-Star Games) was the Mariners pitching coach at that time and was working with young pitchers throughout the system.
Mel Stottlemyre Jr., a clubhouse kid of sorts, had a chance to kick it around Yankee Stadium when his father was still playing, then traveled with Mel Sr. when he was working with young hurlers in the system as a coach.
Mel Jr. was just 14 at the time and actually had a catch with the 18-year-old Graser, who was selected in the ninth round of the 1978 Major League Baseball Draft by the Mariners.
Their lives took them in different directions. Graser spent three years in Single A and ended up moving to Moses Lake in 1982 were he became a successful fishing guide.
Mel Jr. was later drafted in the January Secondary 1985 Major League Draft by the Houston Astros. He went on to play for the Kansas City Royals, then followed in his father’s footsteps as a pitching coach, eventually joining the Mariners staff in 2015.
For the love of the game.
Stottlemyre and Graser hooked-up one more time almost four decades after that long ago game of catch.
“I went down to spring training last year (2016) and took my grandkids on that dream vacation,” Graser said.
Said Stottlemyre, “The one thing about baseball, spending time with my dad around a lot of great people, is the connections made and how special that is,” Mel Jr. said. “Duck (Graser’s nickname) came down to Arizona last spring. I was over in the bullpen working with Felix (Hernandez) at the time. I hear, ‘Stott, Stott, Stott.’
“A lot of people yell at ya when your down there, so I didn’t pay much attention. But when I hear the word ‘fish-on’ it gets my attention. It’d been a long time since I’d seen him, but I remembered him well. He was drafted as an outfielder, but was trying to make the transition to pitcher in Single A. The one thing I do remember is how hard he threw. Anyway, we had a chance to reconnect.”
The baseball was the common ground, but it was the talk of fishing that day broke the ice. That conversation last spring led to a few text messages and finally the steelhead fishing trip on the Clearwater River in Idaho had a fixed date at the end of January.
Stottlemyre runs Stotts Fishing Adventures out of Lewiston, Idaho. When he’s not working with the Mariner’s pitching staff, he’s working to help his clients hook-up with steelhead. The cry “fish on,” takes on a whole new meaning on the Clearwater where Mel Sr. and Mel Jr. have a river permit that allows them to run a commercial business on the first 60 miles.
Graser and the Grant County party, which also included Grant County Juvenile Detention supervisor Garth Kofoed, worked an eight-mile stretch below the hatchery with success.
“I’ve always wanted to fish on the Clearwater, because it’s known for very, very large trophy steelhead, up to 20 pounds,” Graser said. “My passion for fishing and having Stottlemyre as my guide is a bucket list thing.”
Mel Jr. has been guiding on the Clearwater for 17 years, so like the pitching staff taking advantage of his baseball knowledge, his fishing clients are in good hands with his knowledge of one of the rivers flowing westward, feeding the Columbia River basin.
“Stotts is known for top-of-the-line gear. We were using rods that ran $600 with $300 reels. Most people don’t get to use gear that good,” Graser said. “We floated salmon eggs up off the bottom, which is a real popular bait. The steelhead also love crawdads, but we were using salmon eggs. These fish migrate to the ocean and back, so I was kind of shocked at what kind of shape they were in. They were new fish migrating back up to the hatchery. They were beautiful.”
They caught six on that overcast day in January. It was a good day to fish and one of those special moments where Graser and Stottlemyre hooked up at the crossroads one more time to talk baseball and catch fish.
Rodney Harwood is a sports writer for the Columbia Basin Herald and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org