By Matthew Taylor
At the end of August, The Sun’s Roch Kubatko posed an interesting question on his “Roch Around the Clock” blog. Having seen, if not heard, this year’s induction ceremony for the Orioles Hall of Fame, Kubatko wondered, “Which former Orioles are next in line?”
Kubatko started with some soft toss, throwing out the names of fan favorites like Mike Bordick and B.J. Surhoff. Then he brought the heat: What about Mike Mussina?
Mussina committed a sinful act prior to the 2001 season, leaving the Birds to play for the hated New York Yankees. At the time, my instincts said it was a mortal sin: “To choose deliberately – that is, both knowing it and willing it – something gravely contrary to the divine law.”
“Mike Mussina,” I said half-heartedly at the time, “Go to Hell.”
Six seasons later, I’m ready to consider a different possibility. Yes, Mike Mussina committed a sin. But perhaps it was more of a venial sin, “A moral disorder that is reparable.”
The truth is, I’ve never been able to hate Mike Mussina. I’ve wanted him back in an O’s uniform ever since he traded Orange and Black for pinstripes in 2001. But even if Mussina doesn’t return home this off-season – and chances are that he won’t – he still belongs in the Orioles Hall of Fame.
For one thing, his departure from the O’s was due to the team’s failings, not his. Then there’s the fact that he was a truly great pitcher during his time in Charm City. Consider also that he’s a hard luck guy who deserves better than he’s gotten on the diamond, and one who demonstrates class off of it, and you can understand why Mike Mussina is a Bird that I want to return the flock.
So I agree with Roch Kubatko when he writes, “I can’t imagine an Orioles HOF without Moose.”
The Case for Mike Mussina
Many explanations have been offered for why Mike Mussina left the Orioles following the 2000 season – the inability to get a deal done during spring training or the early part of the season; disagreement over a “no trade” clause; the erroneous belief that Mussina would offer the O’s the “home town discount” – but all of the reasons given reflect the team’s mismanagement of the situation.
Mussina is one of the Orioles’ all-time great pitchers (third in wins, second in strikeouts, fifth in starts). On two occasions he tied the team record for strikeouts in a game, setting down 15 batters on May 16, 1993, and July 5, 1997. Mussina also holds the team record for strikeouts in a season, 218 in 1997.
For the O’s, Mussina was a clutch starter who nearly willed the Birds to the ’97 American League pennant with 41 strikeouts in 29 postseason innings. He gave up just four runs in four playoff games, twice beating a considerably more dominant Randy Johnson (who went 20-4 and the AL with 12.3 strikeouts per 9 innings). Mussina pitched with such crisp efficiency in the playoffs that he earned the nickname “Mike Machine-a.”
Even in his Game 6 defeat that year, he gave O’s fans an “I Was There” moment – and I was in fact there – when he pitched eight innings of one-hit ball at Camden Yards with 10 K’s and only two walks. This after he established a League Championship Series record with 15 strikeouts in Game 3. Baseball Library describes the dual performances as “two of the most valiant no-decisions in playoff pitching history.”
The Wire-to-Wire ’97 season and Mussina’s postseason heroics are among the best of this 31-year-old’s Orioles memories. However, Mussina’s greatness extends well beyond that one dominant season. A cynic might point out that Mussina has never won 20 games and has never tossed a no-hitter, two mystical measures of baseball greatness. These facts are true. However, if Mussina were pitching horseshoes or grenades instead of a baseball, he would rank as one of the game’s all-time aces.
This season, Mussina tied the American League record for most seasons with 10 wins by the All-Star break. He also became the first pitcher in AL history to win 10 or more games in each of 15 consecutive seasons. However, he has never won 20 games in a single season. He won 17 games three times (’97, ’01, and ’03) and 18 games three times (’92, ’99, ’02). Twice, he won 19 (’95, ’96).
Consider this from Baseball Library:
“His failure to reach the 20-win benchmark had more to do with bad luck than bad pitches. The player’s strike likely cost him a 20-win season both in 1994, when he had racked up 16 wins before the season abruptly ended in mid-August, and in 1995, when he won 19 games but was deprived at least three starts by the truncated 144-game schedule. In 1996 he couldn’t nail down a final victory after hitting 19 wins with four starts left. In the penultimate game of the season he staked the Orioles to a 2-1 lead only to watch closer Randy Myers let in the tying run in the ninth inning. In 1999 he won 18 games but missed four starts in August and September after he was struck in the right deltoid by a liner off the bat of Brook Fordyce.”
Then there’s the issue of the no-hitters. Again, from Baseball Library:
“Equally frustrating were Mussina’s string of near no-hitters. On May 30, 1997 he retired the first 25 Cleveland Indians before catcher Sandy Alomar, Jr. lined a single to left field with one out in the ninth, denying him what would have been the first perfect game in franchise history. (The following May, Alomar would drill a single that hit just below Mussina’s right eye, bloodying his face, fracturing his nose and sending him to the DL for three weeks.) After fanning the last two hitters, Mussina settled for a one-hit, 10-strikeout shutout. Less than a month later he tossed seven no-hit innings at Milwaukee before Jose Valentin opened the eighth inning with a single. He flirted with perfection again the next season, setting down the first 23 Detroit Tigers on August 4, 1998 before giving up a two-out eighth-inning double to Frank Catalanotto.
His no-hit karma also followed him north. In a nationally televised Sunday night game on September 2, 2001, he tossed another near-masterpiece at Boston’s Fenway Park. When the Yankees finally broke a scoreless tie with an unearned run off veteran David Cone in the top of the ninth, Mussina needed only three outs to complete a perfect game. After retiring the first two batters of the inning, he got ahead of pinch-hitter Carl Everett 1-2 before the BoSox outfielder punched a high fastball into left-center field to ruin his bid at pitching immortality.”
Beyond all of the on-field greatness, Mussina is a class act off of the field. I tried to cast the man to eternal damnation after he sold his soul to the pinstriped devil, but the truths are these:
- Mussina is no Derek Jeter – an endlessly hyped cover boy who has no flaws, but only because sports announcers have airbrushed them from the picture.
- He’s no Gary Sheffield – a surly talent who you’d allow to be your kid’s hero but not his baby sitter.
- And he’s certainly no Jason Giambi – a rule breaker whom Bronx fans chastised then cheered based on performance rather than principle.
Mike Mussina is a likeable guy any way you cut it.
Mussina coaches his local Pennsylvania high school football team after the baseball season ends. He’s an old school guy who, despite working in the big city, loves his home town (population: 5,000) and wants to return there when he retires. He even served as a board member for Little League Baseball.
Mussina fell decimal points short of being his high school’s valedictorian and went on to graduate with an economics degree from Stanford in just three years.
Finally, Mussina’s a guy who knows tragedy all too well after 21 of his Montoursville neighbors perished in 1996 on TWA Flight 800. Mussina returned home that year for as many of the funerals as he could attend.
Here’s hoping that the O’s brass has enough vision to strongly pursue Mussina this off-season and to place him in the team’s Hall of Fame after his esteemed career ends.
Should the Moose get into the Orioles Hall of Fame after he retires? Vote in our latest poll on the sidebar.