Aug. 25, 1997
It was almost like last year there for a minute on Saturday night when Mike Mussina left the Orioles' dugout stewing a big mad for manager Davey Johnson.
But this isn't last year, that's for sure, with the Orioles now stationed at 39 games over .500 after beating the Twins again yesterday at Camden Yards.
Against that backdrop, expect the Mussina affair to dwindle away until it disappears altogether.
BOTH SIDES WILL ALWAYS BE convinced they're right, but it's just a bruise in relations, not a break.
"I know I'm never going to be right," Johnson said yesterday, meaning that he knows Mussina's mind is made up, "but when you win, everything goes away.
" The Orioles didn't win for more than four months last year and numerous controversies dogged the clubhouse; Bobby Bonilla, Cal Ripken and several other players had their grumbles.
This year, the club is winning and controversies are rare, not coincidentally, and a brouhaha such as this "just can't" fester, Johnson said.
HE'S RIGHT, OF COURSE; WHO CARES about clashing opinions when the team has won five straight games and 22 of 28? Earl Weaver and Jim Palmer didn't exactly hug each other in their heyday, but the team still won.
It's probably not a good idea for Johnson to rankle Mussina too often, but Mussina signed a giant contract with the club earlier this season and he's a pro who leaves his emotions in the clubhouse, so there's no threat of repercussions.
Not that Mussina was any happier yesterday about what happened Saturday night.
FOR THOSE WHO MISSED IT, JOHNSON pulled Mussina after five innings even though Mussina had a 3-2 lead and 11 strikeouts and had thrown just 99 pitches.
Mussina left the dugout in a huff, refused to talk to reporters after the game and declined to comment again yesterday, the portrait of an angry ace.
The bullpen blew Mussina's lead, but the Orioles rallied to win, 5-4, and Johnson explained after the game that he was protecting Mussina's arm for the stretch run and the playoffs.
THE MANAGER CALLED THE DECISION "a no-brainer," a piece of heavy spin that any political operative could appreciate.
It wasn't a no-brainer, it was a debatable decision involving an All-Star pitcher on the verge of a career night. Mussina had never struck out more than 14 batters in a game. And the Orioles' bullpen didn't need any extra work after a long series in Kansas City.
By any gauge, it was a premature hook for a pitcher accustomed to pitching into the seventh inning.
MUSSINA DESERVED THE CHANCE to pitch the sixth, at least.
If he had, his pitch count would have risen to a level that usually precipitates his departure, and there wouldn't have been any fuss.
Johnson is wise to start planning for the stretch run and the playoffs, but one more inning for Mussina in late August wasn't going to make any difference.
Not that Johnson had changed his opinion one iota yesterday.
"We're not always going to be perfect, me included, but I'm going to do what I think needs to be done for this club to reach our goal of reaching the playoffs and World Series," he said. "I don't care what anyone else thinks. I've probably pushed Mike harder than any pitcher on the staff. I did what I thought was right. I just can't be worrying about personal glory. Mike might have struck out 15 or 16, but we're going to need him later."
AT THIS POINT, WHO CAN ARGUE with Johnson's reasoning in any decision? Almost every one of his moves has worked this season. He's massaged the bullpen, pulled the team out of a slump with a new lineup, coaxed a big season out of Jeffrey Hammonds. He's on a roll.
It was symbolic that the club still won Saturday after his debatable early hook of Mussina.
No matter what happens, everything seems to work out for the best this season.
The way things are going, Mussina probably will take out his anger on the Mets in his next start and pitch one of his best games of the season.
AS THE OAKLAND ATHLETICS of the early '70s proved, a little tension doesn't hurt.
Not that the tension from this episode will last.
Mussina always will believe he was wronged, but he has an old-school mentality and he isn't going to compromise his pitching over a perceived injustice.
Besides, it would be beneath him to continue to carry his anger around as the team drives for the playoffs.
"I'M OLD SCHOOL, TOO," JOHNSON said yesterday. "Mike and I are on the same page. He knows why I did it and I know why he's upset. There's really nothing to talk about. We're both trying to win."
And that's that.
A year ago, when the Orioles were struggling, a clash such as this might have festered long enough to matter.
This year, with 100 wins and further glories in sight, it just disappears.
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