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Utopian '97 leaves Orioles' Mussina at peace

March 15, 1998

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Mike Mussina will tell you straight up he doesn't like stupid questions. Doesn't like stupid pitching coaches. Doesn't like stupid rules. Doesn't like stupid assumptions from people who, stupidly, just don't know.

Mike Mussina
Instead of breaking the bank, Mike Mussina took less money that he could have gotten to remain in an Orioles uniform.
ask him about 1997, his year of living right, and perhaps baseball's most intelligent pitcher wishes it could become a stupid movie.

"IF I KEEP doing '97 over and over again, like a Groundhog Day thing, I could live with that," he says. "But it's not Groundhog Day."

No, it's not, because Mussina's tale is real: how a guy who wakes up with a throbbing elbow three days before Opening Day turns something stupid like a bone chip into a seven-month run that includes a three-year, $20.45 million contract extension, a fourth consecutive 15-victory season, an incredible pitching spree in the playoffs, the naming of mentor Mike Flanagan as pitching coach and, finally, marriage. Even though the Orioles didn't make the World Series, Mussina got a ring.

Looking back, the Stanford grad calls the whole thing "utopian." Twelve months ago, after arriving in Fort Lauderdale unsure of himself, Mussina, 29, prepares to enter 1998 favored to win the AL Cy Young Award and, in the words of Flanagan, "at peace with himself."

"There just comes a point where our state of mind is more important. That's how I felt last spring, and that's how I still feel," Mussina says.

The centerpiece for his security is the extension worked out in a face-to-face breakfast with majority owner Peter Angelos. Comfortable with his teammates, his surroundings and his personal life, Mussina thought it more important to stay in Baltimore than to push the industry's financial envelope. His agent, Arn Tellem, begged him not to take the deal. Pending free agents ripped him for it. Lesser pitchers such as Wilson Alvarez and Darryl Kile would soon sign for more. But, hey, it's not the money, stupid.

"I KNOW THAT I COULD HAVE and probably would have made more money, but I'm also relatively sure it would have been someplace else," he says.

So instead of sparring for a $9 million-plus annual salary elsewhere, Mussina returned home to Pennsylvania, got married, became a stepfather and let others second-guess his contract.

"I think the rest of the season could have been a lot different: the playoffs, the off-season, spring training, everything. If I don't make that decision, I've got people looking over my shoulder the whole season, especially in the playoffs. Who knows what would have happened?" says Mussina, who stuffed the Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians last fall. "Spending the whole off-season trying to focus on a wedding, then all of a sudden worrying about free agency would have changed a lot of things. I just didn't want to go through that."

Percentage pitcher
Highest winning percentage among active pitchers (100 or more decisions):
Mike Mussina 105-49 .682
Dwight Gooden 177-97 .646
Randy Johnson 124-68 .646
Roger Clemens 213-118 .644
David Cone 148-86 .632
Greg Maddux 184-108 .630
Jimmy Key 180-114 .612
Ramon Martinez 116-74 .611
Pat Hentgen 82-53 .607
Tom Glavine 153-99 .607
along with being the game's best pitcher never to win 20 games, Mussina might also be its most underpaid. Neither fazes him.

"He probably could have gone to Arizona for $50 [million] or $60 million, but his first win there would have been No. 1. His next win here will be 106 or something. Pretty soon, he'll catch [Scott] McGregor," says Flanagan, referring to McGregor's 138 wins in Baltimore, fifth-most in team history. "That's how you're graded. Guys who bounce around from team to team end up with a total record, but they really don't have a place. It's very important to him to have a place in Orioles history."

That place should include a leather recliner, a book of crosswords and a humidor. Mussina enters this season baseball's highest percentage pitcher (.682). He is the fourth-youngest Oriole to reach 100 wins and has averaged 230 innings pitched the last three seasons. In 1995, probably his best year, Mussina was 19-9 with 158 strikeouts and 50 walks in 221.2 innings. Last year, in 224.2 innings, he struck out 218 against only 54 walks.

MUSSINA HAS REACHED THIS POINT largely on his own. He admittedly doesn't trust easily. He is a grim-faced competitor, not a glad-hander. When pitching, he usually returns to the clubhouse while his team bats. His dry sense of humor can be mistaken for smugness. The American League thought him unfunny enough to suggest a more tolerant approach with the media during last year's playoffs.

"People misconstrue me all the time. I'm not the person who jumps up and says, `Hi, how you doing? I'm Mike.' That's not me, and it never has been. I usually don't form friendships in five minutes," Mussina says. "People are going to write what they're going to write. They're going to do what they're going to do. I'm not trying to rebel. I'm not trying to be a smart aleck. I'm not trying to make a point.

"With the media, I expect a lot of them. If you're going to ask me a question, ask a substantive question. Don't ask me, `How do you feel? How was your curveball working?' "

Mussina also has warred with pitching coaches. Finally, he knows two he can call allies.

As a teammate, broadcaster, pitching coach and confidant, Flanagan has witnessed virtually every phase of Mussina's development. The two played together in 1991 and '92, Mussina a prodigy and Flanagan a former Cy Young Award winner who returned from the Toronto Blue Jays to finish his career in the Orioles bullpen. Last season, as Miller persuaded Mussina to simplify his focus to pitching down in the strike zone, Flanagan was there to reinforce the message.

ALL THIS REPRESENTED A WELCOME change for Mussina, by 1996 impatient with the organization's inability to find a long-term pitching coach. Flanagan himself had been sacked along with manager Phil Regan after the '95 season. His replacement, Davey Johnson crony Pat Dobson, never gained Mussina's respect.

Mussina is as uncompromising toward authority as he is with himself. The relationship with Dobson finally splintered in September 1996, when the pitcher ordered his pitching coach off the mound with an obscenity.

Mussina glances at a wall inside the coaches' room. He points to a chart, part hieroglyphics, part calendar, that details every move of every pitcher leading up to Opening Day. Until Ray Miller's arrival as pitching coach last year, Mussina had rarely seen such planning by any coach.

"That's more effort than I've ever seen from a pitching coach. Even before we went on the field, I knew this guy was going to give as much as a coach as we were giving as players. Soon as he told me something, I did it. It's a respect factor," Mussina says.

Mussina once said he pitched 1996 "in a bad mood." Able to trust Miller and Flanagan, he became Mr. Happy last season.

OK, SO THERE WERE THE FIVE blown saves behind him that cost Mussina his first 20-win season.

And, yeah, he became incensed and didn't emerge from the shower for 45 minutes when an error cost him a shutout against the New York Yankees, a game the Orioles won to go up 7½ games on Sept. 13.

Oops, and don't forget the August start against the Minnesota Twins when Johnson pulled Mussina with a lead after five innings despite 11 strikeouts against only one walk. (The bullpen blew the lead and Mussina blew off all questions.)

"I don't think he answers to anybody but himself," says Flanagan. "Things are very cut and dried with Mike. There are right ways to do things and wrong ways. He's pretty much a black-and-white guy. There's no gray area."

Mussina says that until recently he was affected by the status and accompanying scrutiny of being his staff's No. 1 starter. To justify his standing, he felt he needed to win every start and sometimes speak for the entire rotation. Having won 18 games at 23, it seemed great expectations never allowed him an off day.

"Chronologically, it was a strange position to be in," Flanagan says. "You're not supposed to be the ace at 25."

ENTERING HIS SEVENTH FULL MAJOR-LEAGUE season, Mussina now better accepts his role. Certainly, the transformation of the Orioles from a softball-style offense to a strong pitching-and-defense club helped. Jimmy Key and Scott Erickson provided him cover while winning 16 games apiece last season.

"I think it took awhile for me to understand what my role was. I'm the No. 1 pitcher regardless of whether I wanted to be, didn't want to be, wanted to vote on it, whatever. I was the No. 1 pitcher," says Mussina, who last season made his fourth All-Star team, ranked sixth in ERA and won a second consecutive Gold Glove.

"In '96, the way things were going, I put pressure on myself to win every time I pitched. Last year was nothing like that. It was more fun to be the No. 1 because most of the year people weren't even looking at me. Jimmy was throwing the ball great. Erickson was throwing the ball great. Randy [Myers] had the year of all years for closers. I was the `other' No. 1 guy."

Mussina entered the postseason hearing questions about his ability to win a big game. He left it having established a new standard of dominance.

In four postseason starts, Mussina allowed four runs in 29 innings, a 1.24 ERA. He struck out a postseason-record 41, walked 10 and allowed 11 hits. But during his 15 innings pitched in the American League Championship Series, the Orioles never scored a run. To paint his masterpiece, Mussina also overcame a phobia about pitching on three days' rest. Miller, who has seen much, called the performance "the best four consecutive games ever pitched." Even Mussina was impressed.

"To strike out that many guys or pitch that well, that's a once-in-a-career situation. If you can go through an entire season and make 35 starts, you can pick out the best four or five and they may match up to those four. For them to happen in a row in that situation may be a utopian situation," he says.

Utopia. What a neat place to spend Groundhog Day.


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