When someone that we enjoyed for many years finally gets into the Hall of Fame, as Mike Mussina did Tuesday, it feels warm to go back to the beginning and remember the whole journey with the freshness of those early days.
In spring training in 1993, after Mussina had gone 18-5 in his first full season in the majors with Baltimore, I asked Orioles pitching coach Dick Bosman what made Mussina so special.
“Moose has six pitches,” said Bosman, who once won the American League ERA title for the old Washington Senators. “Three of them are fastballs that move different ways — two-seam, four-seam and cutter. Also a slow curve, a hard knuckle-curve and a change-up.
“I warm him up sitting on a stool. I put out the glove and I don’t have to move it very often,” he said. “It’s pretty scary.”
While his fastball could touch or top 90 mph in his early years, he worked at a lowly 86.4 by his last season — yet remained an effective flyball pitcher, with the ability to challenge and defeat hitters in big situations and key counts with fastballs at or just above the top of the zone. Juggling nitro, seldom dropping it.
“He puts it right here, here, here, time after time,” said Bosman, his hand six inches above the waist, where hitters seldom lay off, and at 90 mph, where they don’t swing and miss much, either. They pop out or fly out — the glorious “quick out” that pitchers who throw much harder often never master.
Command — of all of his pitches, his icy demeanor, his between-starts self-discipline and his elite baseball intelligence — always defined Mussina. That, and his combination of competitive confidence and courage to engage.
I asked how he planned to cope with failure. Mussina, then 24, said: “I have never faced it, not at any stop. . . . I’ve just always been able to get hitters out.”
So, though he wouldn’t quite say it, his plan was not to fail. Ever. And if he did, briefly, then ignore it, correct it and just continue succeeding. Must be nice.
Mussina would talk about that great demon facing all pitchers — the disastrous injury, what he always just called “the knife” — and the complete inability to predict what came after those cuts. Then he would dismiss that uncontrollable factor and focus completely on what he intended to do. In 1993, with just one successful year behind him, I asked whether he had any sense yet of what his career might look like.
“It’s only been a year, plus two months [in 1991]. I don’t know what my ‘normal season’ is yet,” he said.
“I’d like to win 230,” he added, at a moment when he had 22. “If I’m still with this club, I could chase Palmer [for the team record of 268]. Do you think Jimmy’d come out of retirement again [to protect his record]? I’d be 37. What’d he be, 55?”
In 2008, his last season, Mussina won 20 games for the only time in his career. Yet, at that high point, he surprisingly retired with 270 wins — two more than Palmer, although 123 came with the New York Yankees.
Who retires when they are near the top of their game, within 30 wins of 300 and an automatic spot in the Hall of Fame? Who, in effect, says this? Cooperstown? Sure, that’d be good. But I’m not going to risk being a .500 pitcher, even at $10 million plus a year, just to make sure I get there.
This decision fascinates me because I know Mussina had a sense of MLB history. If he cared about a number, or the mandatory celebrations and months-long buildup that go with it, he knew he could’ve hung around with a 95 percent shot at 300.
Moose — or this one, at least — apparently don’t do ruffled fur.
Because he stayed at 270 wins, it may be underappreciated that Mussina won 117 more games than he lost. He’s in good company there, just behind Pedro Martinez (119 games over .500) and Warren Spahn (118) and just ahead of Palmer (116).
Because he was an honest pitcher facing many cheating hitters in a career that almost perfectly overlapped with the PED era, Mussina’s 3.68 ERA may be nitpicked too much, while his career Baseball-Reference WAR of 82.9 — 18th among pitchers since 1900 — is above the average WAR of starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame (73.4).
Because Mussina was so elegant, restrained and consistent and never won 20 games until so late, it’s easy to think of his great career as a fluid continuum without a flaw, but also without a glove-heaving, World Series-winning moment. After 10 years with the Orioles (in which he went 147-81), he went to the Yankees as a free agent. In eight years there, he went to two Series but never won one.
Because he seldom volunteered much of his sardonic, brainy personality and played the “nothing to see here” good guy while listening to Metallica on his headphones, Mussina is in danger of being canonized as excellent yet remembered . . . well, for not much at all, at least by the standards of Hall of Famers.
That would not bother him. After graduating from Stanford with a degree in economics in 3½ years, Mussina always carried himself in a way that is seldom seen on a pro sports team — with no apparent fear of what the game could do to him or take from him. Beyond a sense of loss over the joy of playing, Mussina seemed like he’d simply win at something else. Maybe it was part of his mask or image. Probably not.
His manager Johnny Oates once said that, for years, he made sure never to talk to Mussina about any subject except baseball for fear of “saying something stupid.”
Former pitcher Rick Sutcliffe once said of him: “He is the whole package.” Mussina could maintain that whole-package shield for years. Few players talked more openly to me, when they chose, than Mussina. But nobody else would stop at pleasantries, and go no further, for years — and for no reason.
Yet after word hit the clubhouse that one of Mussina’s best friends, B.J. Surhoff, had been traded to the Atlanta Braves midseason, Moose called me to his locker — furious.
The Surhoffs had a child they believed could get better medical care at Johns Hopkins than anywhere else, and B.J. absolutely wanted to stay in Baltimore. But Mussina, and other Orioles, believed he was traded in part out of spite after petty tiffs with a member of ownership.
“That’s it,” spit out Mussina, who was in his free agent walk year. “I’m out of here.”
The next year, he was a Yankee. Cause and effect?
Now, Mike Mussina is with the one team on which he absolutely belongs, even if he never traded an iota of his pride to join it. That’s the team in Cooperstown, the one that never plays a game but, for generations, stays on every fan’s schedule for visits and fond memories.