Outside Pitch Cover Story
May 26, 2000
Ace Mike Mussina Remains Focused On
Mike Mussina was standing by his locker in the Camden Yards clubhouse after pitching what has become something of a signature game for him -- only two runs allowed in eight innings, yet not enough offensive support from his teammates to enable him to pocket a win.
A radio reporter stuffs a microphone into Mussina's face and begins to ask a question thusly, “Mike, you pitched pretty well -- ”
Mussina abruptly cuts him off. “Pretty well,” the pitcher retorts, sarcasm and frustration dripping from him like sweat off his brow.
It's been that kind of a year, and in many ways, that kind of career, for Mussina.
In their first 18 games this season, the Orioles scored three runs or less five times. Mussina was the starting pitcher in four of those contests.
Clearly the best pitcher to toe the rubber for Baltimore since Jim Palmer, and one of the top five major league pitchers over the past decade, Mussina often has trouble earning the respect that he deserves.
That's probably the product of his never quite winning 20 games. He has flirted with the magic number, twice garnering 19 victories and twice 18 in his eight full seasons as an Oriole. But in a game in which performers are judged, often unfairly, by statistics, Mussina is seen by some as lacking because he never has reached the plateau of 20 wins. (He once was denied that Mt. Olympus of pitching when reliever Armando Benitez blew a game that Mussina had seemingly won at the end of the season.) Mussina also never has led his club to the World Series, another yardstick some people use to judge baseball greatness, although he did everything humanly possible (and then some) in the 1997 playoffs in an effort to get them there.
One of Mussina's hallmarks as a great pitcher is that he does not get rattled on the mound. Regardless of what is going on around him, he keeps on an even keel. He says the lack of 20-win notches on his belt does not bother him, as long as he knows that he is pitching well.
But Mussina is human. And he admits that it can grate on him when he repeatedly pitches well and still comes up empty-handed.
“Yeah, it's frustrating,” he says. “I do a job, and sometimes I'm gauged on a scale, wins and losses-wise, that I really have very little control over. Wins are tough to come by sometimes. You can pitch very well and not win a game. It can sometimes be tough, especially today, when you're not in there the whole game.”
He points back to 1996, the year Benitez' lapse cost Mussina a 20-win season. “I was two outs away from getting 20 wins,” he says, “and it was unquestionably the worst year I had.”
That was the year that the right-hander had far-and-away his highest ERA as an Oriole - 4.81 - yet experienced unusually potent run support from his teammates.
In most years, though, Mussina has found that to win for the Orioles, he not only has to keep the other team almost scoreless, he also has to hope Lady Luck can draw some runs from his teammates.
In part because as No. 1 starter Mussina generally faces the opponent's top pitcher, he seems to be constantly engaged in tight pitchers' duels of the 2-1 variety.
Many ballplayers will tell you that important games or tight games make them more intense and therefore bring out the best in them. But Mussina looks at these situations a little differently. To him, every game is big, and every pitch is important. Part of his emotional makeup is that he is as intense in ordinary pitching situations as he is in critical ones. And instead of finding it easier to pitch in key games or cliff-hangers because of the adrenaline they stir up, he finds it more difficult because each pitch could cost the game.
“It makes it tougher to pitch well when you know the game is on the line every pitch you throw,” the 31-year-old Pennsylvania native says. “I'm trying to pitch the same way every day. I'm trying to hold the other team to nothing. It's tougher mentally to pitch when every pitch could mean the game. But as the No. 1 pitcher, that's what I'm supposed to do.”
Since he tries to bear down as much as he can on each pitch, Mussina insists he doesn't try “harder” when a game—or even a season—is on the line. “I don't consciously notice,” he says. “Hopefully I stay on an even level of emotion, and I don't let too many things bother me. Pitching, and baseball in general, are things you can't do on emotion. They're not contact sports. You need to use your control and use your head. I try to stay neutral.”
And unlike many pitchers, he usually does. It can become something of a game to watch the serene and composed Mussina on the mound, and see if you can catch him reveal his emotions or lose his cool. It doesn't happen often. “I think you need to release your emotions every once in a while,” he concedes. “You can't go out there and have absolutely no emotions at all. You feel like you really need to let a little of it out. There are moments when you get fired up. It can work to your benefit. If you get it off your chest, you can refocus on what you are doing.”
And what type of incidents might make this usually poised and unruffled pitcher unleash a flash of emotion on the field?
“When you make a good pitch and don't get a call,” he responds. “Or when a play isn't made behind you. All kinds of stuff. We're out there every single day, and things don't always go our way. You try to let it out in little spurts, and not let it all out at once.”
Mussina, who graduated from Stanford with a degree in economics in less than four years, is one of the smartest players on the Orioles, if not in all of baseball. Yet he also has some of the simplest tastes on the team. He avoids the glitz, the fast cars and the pricey threads. Bright lights don't appeal to Mussina.
He likes nothing better than to hang out in his hometown of Montoursville, just a couple hours drive from Baltimore, with his wife and two kids or coach local high school students in basketball or football. He's basically a small-town boy in a big-town sport. Mussina owns a nice house and some land in Pennsylvania and is building a mini-athletic facility there, with a basketball court, pitching mounds, a weight room and lockers. Nothing fancy, but a chance for him to spend time doing what he loves best.
It seems a long time ago since Mussina first put on an Orioles' uniform on August 4, 1991, at Comiskey Park in Chicago, losing in what has become typical fashion, 1-0, on a four-hitter. Since then he has compiled one of the highest winning percentages in baseball history, .673 entering this season, trailing only Whitey Ford and Lefty Grove among pitchers with at least 200 decisions.
Yet he is at an age when many pitchers are just reaching their prime. At what could be about the mid-point in his career, how does Mussina see himself at this juncture?
“The first half [of his career] has been pretty nice to me, and I hope the second half can be near as productive,” he muses. “Physically, I was probably in better shape a couple years ago, but I take better care of myself now. I probably don't throw as hard now as I did. But I know a lot more about pitching now than when I started, and hopefully, I'll know even more in four or five years than I do now. Experience balances out when you get older. You can't be the athlete you were when you were young.”
Much of what Mussina has accomplished he has had to do on his own, in part because he has lacked a regular mentor—the Orioles have had a different pitching coach for each of the past seven years, a predicament that could be tough on an athlete who isn't as self-sufficient and thoughtful as Mussina. “If I had had the same guy [as pitching coach], yeah, things probably would have been different,” he says. “But in the same respect, because there have been different people around, I have had to really focus on what I'm doing, so that I know what's right and what's wrong. I can feel it, I sense it when I'm throwing, not needing somebody else to point it out to me. Being your own pitching coach, on the fly while the game is going on, is one of the more important things that I have to be able to do. So, for that reason, maybe having all these different guys every year has aided me in becoming even more self-reliant than I possibly would have been otherwise.”
Mussina also has had to adjust to his status as the team ace, the pitcher the team must rely on if it is to succeed and reach the postseason.
After his initial success when he first reached the majors, he says, “I wondered if I was going to be able to keep going out there and pitch like that again, and then pitch like that again the next year. My first year with the title of No. 1 starter, I really wasn't sure that's what I was. I really wasn't sure I could live up to what was expected of the No. 1 starter. Now I have a better grasp of what is expected of me and what I expect of myself and what I'm capable of. So I don't have much problem accepting the job. It's a nice job to have, I guess. I don't know how long I'll be able to be the No. 1 starter. I hope I can pitch for a long time yet.”
How much longer Mussina pitches is not of as much concern these days to Baltimore baseball fans as whether those years, however long they extend, are spent with the Orioles. He can become a free agent at the end of this season, and the entire city is in something of a state of apoplexy over the fear that Mussina might depart for more money elsewhere or a better chance to reach the World Series with another team. His ongoing contract negotiations with owner Peter Angelos are watched more intently in Baltimore than nuclear weapons reduction talks.
“I want to stay in a place where I'm comfortable and with a team that has a chance to win,” he says. “For my first 10 years, that was in Baltimore, and I certainly hope my next 10 years are in Baltimore, too. Hopefully we can work it out.”
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