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Mussina excited to bloom as transplanted ace

USA TODAY Baseball Weekly

DEW GLISTENED ON the bright green grass on this brilliant Sunday morning, the same ground where Babe Ruth once walked, and in the stands the kids in their dark navy blue jerseys and caps were leaning over the front-row railing of Yankee Stadium, screaming Derek Jeter's name.

Jeter, being the matinee idol that he is, dutifully signed their scorecards, their baseballs and even their shirts. He then ducked quickly into the dugout and down the steps, through the hallway to the quiet haven of the Yankees' clubhouse, and the kids turned their attention to the next hero.

"Your turn, Tino," called out manager Joe Torre, himself holding court in the dugout, surrounded by the usual 16 or so members of the media he meets with before every home game. First baseman Tino Martinez jogged off the field, the relentless kids yelling: "Tino! Hey, Tino! Tino!" Martinez sort of smiled in a grimacing kind of way, shook his head and said "Geez!" as he clacked down the steps.

But he knows that's the way it is when you're the New York Yankees and you've won three World Series titles in a row and you're trying to win a fourth, which, by the way, hasn't been done since the Yankees themselves did it in 1953.

There's pressure to win then there is pressure to win in New York. If you don't believe it, just ask Texas left-hander Kenny Rogers or second baseman-turned-left fielder Chuck Knoblauch. There are the games, then there is the intense media scrutiny and the rivalry with the Mets. On top of all that there's the people, the traffic. ... Let's just say if you want peace and quiet, play for Tampa Bay.

"I knew it was going to be this way," said right-hander Mike Mussina, the former Oriole ace who signed a six-year, $88.5 million free-agent deal with New York last November. "You know, you make decisions like this, you understand things are going to be a certain way.

"I made this decision, I have to accept it, and not get caught up in the other stuff in New York."

Mussina is a serious man who doesn't like change and doesn't like crowds. He cherishes the time he spends with his wife, Jana, and their two children (Kyra, 11 and Brycen, 2) in their hometown of Montoursville, Pa. (pop. 4,777). It's where his house is a half-mile from the road, where he can walk into the hardware store without having to sign an autograph, and where he has built a huge pine-framed fieldhouse that includes an 84-foot basketball court, upstairs weight room and a 70-foot batting cage complete with dual clay mounds.

No doubt, he would have preferred to play the rest of his career in Baltimore (only a three-hour drive from Montoursville). Instead of commuting into work from Westchester County, which he does now, his Cockeysville, Md., house was pretty much a straight shot into Camden Yards. No traffic, no hassles.

"It was probably just an ideal situation," he said. "I played my whole career 10 years there. I really got spoiled, it was so easy to get around."

But, you know, Orioles management kind of took him for granted; maybe they knew he didn't want to leave, so when it came to re-signing him, they played the card that worked three years ago. Even then Mussina's own mother, Ellie, told him he should test the waters and at least see what others, like Cleveland, could offer.

But he told her no, no, no; he liked it in Baltimore, and that was that.

This time, however, he listened to mom.

"You're 32," Ellie told him, "and this is the last big deal you're going to get. You better give it your best shot."

Instead, the Yankees gave him their best shot.

"In the offseason we discussed ways we could get better," Torre said. "We decided to add more pitching because that's the only way you can be consistent."

In Mussina they saw a guy who had won 147 career games with an ERA well under 4.00 (3.53). They loved his durability; he has pitched at least 200 innings in a season seven times, including the last six years.

New York general manager Brian Cashman said: "All of our championships have been based on pitching, no doubt about it. We're not trying to reinvent the wheel. It's not like we've created some new plan; we're just basically copying a blueprint that's been our track record for years.

"Having a Mike Mussina joining the mix with Roger (Clemens) and Andy Pettitte and El Duque (Orlando Hernandez) was important, just like it was important to have Jimmy Key and David Cone and Pettitte and Rogers back in 1996."

So while many fans clamored for free-agent right fielder Manny Ramirez, the Yankees went about wooing Mussina.

This was something relatively new for them, though. That's right; just because they have the highest payroll ($111.5 million, just ahead of Boston) in baseball, everybody has this idea that, when it comes to free agents, the Yanks are like a shark in an ocean full of chum. But that's not the case. The last big-name free agent they signed before Mussina was Rogers in the winter of 1995.

"I know people try to cast stones," Cashman said. "They say, 'The Yankees are this, the Yankees are that ...' but, you know, we're not the ones breaking the barriers. Collectively, we do a lot of things that add up to a lot. But, individually, we're not setting new markets. Outside of closer (Mariano Rivera), we don't have the highest-paid player at any position."

Once New York decided it would pursue Mussina, the question was, would the Moose feel loose in the big city? He rarely ventured into the city when the Orioles visited New York. All he knew of the place was 42nd and Lexington, Yankee Stadium and the bus ride in between.

Instead of playing it haughty, New York took the approach of an underdog college program trying to lure a blue-chip prospect. It was a smart move. Mussina graduated in the top five of the Montoursville Class of '87, then went to Stanford and earned an economics degree in 3 1/2 years. They knew they were dealing with a smart guy who would consider everything before making his decision.

"We told Mike to talk to the players and our manager about what it's like to be a Yankee in this environment," Cashman said. "You know the front office people are going to tell you you're gonna love it, you're gonna love the guys. We told him to talk to the players. Have your wife talk to the players' wives. Talk about what it's like for you. Because they're in your shoes.

"Listen to Roger Clemens. Listen to Andy Pettitte. Listen to Joe Torre. They can tell you what the traffic's like at the time coming to the ballpark, what the family lounge is like, what the school systems in the area are like. What the neighborhoods are like where they're living."

Then the phone calls poured in.

"You don't have to live in the city," Jeter said. "A lot of people associate this organization with living in Manhattan. I live in Manhattan, but that doesn't mean everyone else has to. If you want to, live out there in New Jersey, or parts of New York where you don't even realize you're in New York."

Torre said he heard the rumor about Mussina not liking his stays in New York and didn't want that to be the deciding factor. He called to let him know there were places in Westchester County and Jersey where he could have the peace and quiet he craved.

When he got off the phone with Torre, Mussina was excited. He said later that Torre's call was probably the main reason he ended up in pinstripes.

"The Yankees just acted like they really wanted him on their team," Ellie said.

The Bronx started looking better and better. He wanted to win a title; what better team to be with than the Yankees? They had the best closer in the game, which every pitcher appreciates. He would be the No. 3 starter, so there wouldn't be the pressure he felt in Baltimore. Besides, New York wasn't that much farther from Montoursville than Baltimore.

And, yes, the money was good.

The deal was financially rewarding for Mussina, but it didn't break owner George Steinbrenner's bank. Compared to what pitchers such as Kevin Brown and Mike Hampton signed for, paying Mussina $14.75 million a year almost seemed like a bargain.

"We're very proud that we were able to get it done and we didn't break any markets," Cashman said. "We didn't see any new 'highest-paid' record."

Now that the season is more than a month old, Mussina said that life in the Big Apple isn't so bad after all.

"It's OK. It really is," he said. "I really don't feel the city itself that much. I live north of town, north of the Bronx, so I make the commute in.

"There are just more people in New York. There's more traffic and it's going to be there. And if you understand that when you leave the house every day, then it's not something that wears you down."

Jeter said Mussina has fit right into the Yankees clubhouse, which makes sense, because they're both the same way: businesslike.

"Everything here is very professional," Mussina said. "From the front office all the way down, everybody has chosen certain people to do certain jobs, and they trust those people to do those jobs. For that reason, everybody goes about their business and trusts that the guy next to him is going to do his job with the same effort that you're doing yours."

There is a feeling of trust, he said, "and it allows you to play with more confidence, without extra stuff on your mind. You're not doing more than you should be trying to do."

Now, after all those years of fighting them, he's the beneficiary of the Yankees' patient attack steeped in fundamentals.

"It's not just pitching here," he said after an April 29 win against Oakland. "Offensively, if a guy is slumping, the rest of the lineup can pick up the slack and do the little things: get a guy over, get a guy in with two outs, get the bunt down. Like today, we had second and third and nobody out, and we got a ground ball to second to get the first run in and got the other runner to third, and that forced them to bring the infield in. We got a base hit, which was that much easier to get. Little stuff like that.

"Jeter is slumping now, but he's going to play better next week. You're not worried about him, you're not worried about Bernie (Williams)."

Mussina lowered his voice slightly. "Chuck (Knoblauch) is playing well, and nobody's worried about him anymore. That's an example of taking away anxiety taking away anything extra so that it allows you to relax and play better. Instead of sitting around the dugout wondering why he threw the ball away today, he's catching fly balls and getting on base three times a game. Now he's stealing bases the way he did in Minnesota."

TAKING AWAY ANXIETY. That's important in hustling, bustling New York, and Torre does it as well as anybody. Knoblauch's problems throwing the ball to first last year were well-documented, and the intense scrutiny had become brutal.

"He was getting pretty beat up," Torre said.

Knoblauch didn't have any trouble with his throws during the offseason, so Torre knew the problem was psychological. "Nobody thinks about walking down the steps, but if you trip one time, you start looking down," Torre said. "And when you start looking down, you're going to trip again."

Nobody is sure why Knoblauch tripped or even starting looking down, but playing in New York certainly didn't help. Suffice to say he didn't have these problems playing in Minnesota. Rogers, Torre said, never felt comfortable playing in the Big Apple, and it showed.

Even so, Torre knew he had to have Knoblauch in his lineup.

"I wanted him to know, in no uncertain terms, that I would help him get through this," Torre said. "At the time I didn't know what the hell we'd do, but I didn't think DH was the answer, and he didn't, either. We'd have tried something. I'm not going to say we'd have figured it out, but we'd have tried something."

The solution came when left fielder Shane Spencer was unable to play this spring because of injury. With a hole in the order, Torre looked around and saw rookie Alfonso Soriano, an infielder, and stuck him in left. But as Knoblauch continued to struggle, Torre came upon the idea of having the two switch positions, and thus, Knoblauch became a left fielder.

"If Spencer's 100%, we probably don't do it," Torre said. "But sometimes, bad things turn into good things."

Knoblauch started the first 31 games in left field, the most consecutive starts by a Yankee left fielder to open the season since Rickey Henderson's 53 in 1989. But he's provided more than stability: He's batting .300 with 12 stolen bases and he's been solid defensively, running down several would-be base hits.

Now Torre has to consider possibly picking Knoblauch for the All-Star team.

"You know, I was just thinking about that the other day," he said. "I try to be fair, and if all things are equal, sure, I'd favor my own guy. I'm not afraid to say that."

The way he's handled the Knoblauch situation is just one example of why it's taken Torre only a little more than five years to reach 500 wins as a Yankee manager, joining the likes of Joe McCarthy, Casey Stengel, Miller Huggins, Ralph Houk and Billy Martin.

He reached the milestone April 28 against Oakland. Before the game Torre said, if they won, he might have to wrestle a ball away from somebody. When rookie left-hander Ted Lilly notched his first career win, there easily could have been a fight for it. But closer Mariano Rivera quickly settled the issue.

"I didn't have to say anything," Torre said. "When we got the final out, Mo handed me the ball."

When Torre met the media in his office after the milestone victory, a celebratory bottle of red wine waited for him on his desk next to some Altoids and a copy of Sinatra's Live at the Sands. You could tell he was savoring this one.

"Normally, when you get fired for the third time and you're 55 years old, you don't think you'll get another chance," he said. (Indeed, when owner George Steinbrenner hired him in 1996, one New York tabloid referred to him as "Clueless Joe.")

"Five years ago at this time, I never thought I'd have 500 wins in a Yankee uniform. It's been a dream."

DREAM, OR NIGHTMARE? Mussina didn't know which it would be Sunday when he made his first return to the Camden Yards pitching mound. He was glad, at least, that his start came in the fourth game of the series, giving him a chance to sit in the foreign dugout for a few days and absorb being on the other side.

"If I had been pitching on our first day in town, I would have had some butterflies," he said.

It also helped that the game was a 1:37 p.m. start, so he didn't have time to sit around thinking about it all day.

His morning began calmly. He sat in the visiting clubhouse, elbows on his knees, watching SportsCenter on the TV mounted on the wall across the room. Everything was normal teammate Scott Brosius stretched out on the couch and read the newspaper. Behind him, coach Willie Randolph provided fashion analysis to Bernie Williams, who strolled into the clubhouse wearing a dark blue suit, beige shirt and burnt-orange tie. Paul O'Neill stood beneath the TV in his underwear, humming Bon Jovi's Livin' On A Prayer. Lilly, fellow lefty Randy Choate and right-hander Ramiro Mendoza walked in, all wearing dapper black suits. Left-hander Andy Pettitte, his T-shirt on backward and soaked in sweat, headed toward the shower, a weightlifting belt slung over his shoulder.

Then it was time to warm up, and Mussina knew there would be some heckling. At Camden Yards, fans can lean over the railing and look down into the visitors' bullpen. "Noose the Moose!" one yelled. "It's Moose-hunting season!" said another. Later, a plane pulled a sign that read "Mike Who$$ina."

But it wasn't all bad. One fan held a neon-orange sign that said, "I miss the Moose."

"I expected a little bit of everything," he said, "and there was a little bit of everything. But I didn't expect anything unruly. I've played for these fans for 10 years and they never acted that way."

When Mussina's name was finally announced before the game, it was difficult to determine how many fans were yelling "Moooooose!" and how many were booing, but a majority stood and clapped for him.

Then he took the mound and noticed something odd. The dirt had the same consistency he remembered, the same texture. But everything else felt skewed because, this offseason, the Orioles moved home plate 7 feet closer to the backstop.

"To a pitcher, that's a big difference," he said. "Instead of throwing to those two doors, I was throwing at the first row of people."

He didn't have the stuff he had last outing, when he struck out 10 and walked none in a complete-game, three-hit shutout of red-hot Minnesota, but he didn't expect that.

"It's tough to have your best stuff two games in a row," he said. But he pitched well, giving up six hits and one run over seven innings, walking two and striking out three and evening his record at 3-3.

He was icing his shoulder in the clubhouse when Brosius' homer gave New York the lead, but he was back in the dugout for the final outs. When it was over, he joined his teammates on the field. "You could see he was excited," Torre said. "You don't often see a pitcher come back out on the field after he's been taken out."

Explained Mussina: "That was my 150th career win. I was trying to get a game ball."

Fifteen minutes later, the media crush was so large, Yankees public relations director Rick Cerrone led Mussina to an auxiliary room. There reporters clustered around him, and when a TV camera got too close, Mussina's brown eyes flashed. "Don't get (the camera) right in my face, or I'm gonna stop," he said.

Despite that brief incident, Mussina was otherwise patient and cordial, thoughtfully answering each question. And, yes, he does seem to be a more joyful man.

"I couldn't believe how relaxed he was," said Louis Berney, who covers the Orioles for Outside Pitch magazine and is a contributor to Baseball Weekly. "He was joking around, having fun, which I never saw him do last year. You can just tell he's a lot happier."

And at ease with his role. During the crush a reporter asked him about a sign in the stands that read, "You're No. 3."

"That's original," Mussina said, then he mulled it over. "Well, that's true. It shows they're watching. They're paying attention."

Outside in the hallway beneath the stands, his family waited for him, including Ellie, who drove from Montoursville that morning with her other son, Mark. She knew the day would be a little cool so she grabbed a coat before leaving. She almost took an orange and black one before realizing she couldn't do that. So she took another blazer from the closet without really looking at it.

Turns out it was navy blue.


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