Feb. 21, 2000
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Feb. 21) -- Mike Mussina is focused on just one number: 35. That's how many starts the Baltimore Orioles ace hopes to make this season.
Mussina isn't worried about reaching 20 wins for the first time, and he isn't preoccupied with the millions of dollars he will receive when he next puts his name on a long-term contract.
The 31-year-old right-hander, settling in for his 10th season, becomes a free agent after this season. The last time he was in that situation was 1997. He signed a $21 million, three-year deal - far below market value for one of the game's finest pitchers.
This time, Mussina stands to make some very serious money.
He's already turned down a $50 million, five-year offer from the Orioles, who shudder at the thought of losing him. Fortunately for Baltimore, Mussina would prefer to stay put - if the money's right.
``Hopefully, we'll work something out, and I'll be able to finish my career here, which is what I'd rather do,'' he said Sunday. ``We'll just have to wait it out.''
Before signing his last contract, Mussina was courted by Orioles owner Peter Angelos. This time, things will be different.
``I'm staying out of it. I'm not going to be involved except for an update phone call now and then,'' Mussina said. ``I'm just going to go out there and pitch, and let the off-the-field stuff be handled by other people.''
Sure, Mussina would prefer to have the process completed by the time he heads north to face the Cleveland Indians on opening day. But there are many haggling points, including the length of the contract and deferred payments.
``Ideally, it gets done before the season gets started. Realistically, the process takes longer than that,'' he said. ``Who knows? It might get done in May, in might get done in July, it might not get finished until after the season's over.
``I'm more concerned about the 35 games I have to go out and play and the other 127 the other guys have to play, and us getting into a position where we're still playing in October.''
Mussina has never won 20 games or a Cy Young Award, but there's no disputing his stature as one of baseball's most effective pitchers. He has won four Gold Gloves and made the All-Star game five times. His .673 winning percentage is the best ever among right-handers with at least 200 decisions.
``What's comforting is not necessarily that Mike's a No. 1 guy,'' manager Mike Hargrove said. ``What I like is how confident he is in his ability. It's not arrogance or conceit. He just strikes me as a guy who pays attention to details, who knows himself very well and knows what he has to do to get ready. That's what separates a good pitcher from a great pitcher.''
Mussina's objective this season has nothing to do with his contract or the elusive 20-win season.
``If I came into every season putting my goal at 20 wins, I'd be throwing a goal out there that realistically may only happen a couple times, if ever,'' he said.
``A more realistic goal would be to be healthy and go out there every time it's my turn, and give us a chance to win every time. If I can do that 35 times, in a fortunate year, I get some breaks and some luck and a good club, and everything works out, maybe 20 of those 35 times you end up winning.''
If that happens in 2000, it will be a first for both Mussina and Hargrove, who comes to Baltimore after a nine-year run with the Indians.
``I've never had a 20-game winner,'' Hargrove said. ``I'd like for both of us to get that. It would be nice.''
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