Mike Mussina walked away from the game after a 20-win season in 2008 — the first and only one of his 18-year career. He left without the World Series ring he had hoped for when he signed with the New York Yankees as a free agent in 2001, and, as it turned out, he left one year before the Yankees would win another World Series in 2009.
He could have kept pitching another two years, and maybe he would have gotten to the coveted (and now seemingly impossible) 300 career wins plateau, which would have likely made him a Hall of Fame lock in his first year of eligibility six years ago.
Instead, he took his 270 wins and .638 winning percentage and his stellar career with the Yankees, and before that the Baltimore Orioles, and he dropped out of sight.
A Stanford graduate, Mussina could have done anything he wanted in the game. Most of the time, he was smarter than the guy he was trying to get out.
But when he stepped off the mound, he went home, back to the small central Pennsylvania town of Montoursville, where he coaches high school basketball and pretty much avoids the spotlight.
He surfaces for the rare celebration, like the 25th anniversary of Camden Yards. But until his name started popping up annually on the Hall of Fame ballot, he was a forgotten pitcher — though, with the way starting pitchers are used in the modern game, no one playing now is likely to ever pass him on the all-time career win list (unless Bartolo Colon pitches until he is 60).
Mussina was great, and then he was gone.
That was Moose, though — someone who always seemed to know what he wanted to do, whether it was with his life or with the four pitches he had in his paint box that he used to create mound art.
His world would not be shaped by expectations or circumstances dictated by others. Here is my work, he said. That’s all you get to judge me.
In the end, that work was enough.
Mussina was one of four baseball greats elected Tuesday to the National Baseball Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers of America, along with designated hitter Edgar Martinez; the late, great starting pitcher, Roy Halladay, and, of course, the great Yankees closer, Mariano Rivera, who is the only player in the history of the voting to be named to 100 percent of the ballots submitted (425 ballots).
Mussina just got past the 75 percent mark needed for election, garnering 76.7 percent of the vote. He started out with just 20.3 percent of the vote in 2014 — a remarkable climb without lobbying, prodding or poking from Montoursville. Just Mussina and his standard of excellence.
As a writer, if you do this long enough, you begin to realize that there are some players who are a prviliege to watch as they work.
Max Scherzer is one of those. Mussina, for me, was another.
In a telephone interview with writers, Mussina, who spent 10 years with the Orioles and eight with the Yankees, said he could not choose between the two teams when it came to the cap that would represent him on his plaque in Cooperstown. “I can’t choose,” he said. “I wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame without both organizations. There is no way I can pick one over the other.” The Hall could make the decision for him, or he could go in without a logo on his cap.
He is right about not being in the Hall of Fame without his eight years with the Yankees. If he had stayed in Baltimore, he surely would not have achieved those 270 career wins no matter his excellence, on Orioles teams that went a combined 550-734 without him from 2001 to 2008. As it was, you could see what was coming in Mussina’s final season in Baltimore — an 11-15 record on the 2000 Orioles who went 74-88. He had this record despite finishing first in the American League in innings pitched, with 237 2/3, third in ERA (3.79) and third in strikeouts (210).
But it was his 10 years in Baltimore where Mussina separated himself as a future Hall of Famer.
The team had a losing record in four of those 10 seasons, yet, other than his final year in 2000, Mussina posted a 19-9, 13-10 and 18-7 record in those other three losing seasons. He had one manager for seven of his eight seasons in New York — Joe Torre.
He had five different managers in his 10 seasons with the Orioles, yet accumulated a 147-81 record — a better winning percentage (.645) than he had in New York (123-72, 6.31 percentage). His ERA in Baltimore was 3.53, in the powerful American League East in the steroid era, designated hitters and a band box of a ballpark — better in an Orioles uniform than it was with the Yankees (3.88).
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