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Mussina Is Where He Wants to Be: On a Contender


Oct. 26, 2001

Mike Mussina has shifted from one pronoun to the other all year, like a driver constantly changing lanes, weaving from "we" to "they" without signaling. When he says we, he means the Yankees. When he says they, he means the Yankees.

It's all about context, and it seems to be completely subconscious. Mussina uses we when speaking of the 2001 Yankees, and he won't go beyond that. He refers to the Yankees' comeback in the division series against Oakland in which he played the pivotal role, throwing seven scoreless innings in Game 3 and Mussina uses we. He talks about how he has gotten precisely what he wanted after leaving a comfortable place with the Baltimore Orioles and signing with the Yankees last winter, and he uses we.

He talks about a dynasty and he uses they. "I haven't been part of the dynasty," Mussina said the other day, standing outside the Yankees' clubhouse. "I'm part of today. I guess in a small way, I am part of it, because it's still going. But I haven't been part of what they've accomplished. I know the guys that have been part of that were excited we were able to get through a 1-0 game in that situation."

Mussina will start Game 1 of the World Series for the Yankees tomorrow night, throwing against Arizona's Curt Schilling, and it may be that within 10 days Mussina will feel comfortable enough to use we every time he refers to the Yankees. After he beat the Athletics, then shut down Seattle in Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, Mussina seems to have gone through some rite of passage with teammates who have played in so many big games. From shortstop Derek Jeter to Manager Joe Torre, they are giving Mussina credit for saving the team from elimination. "He's been the difference," Torre said last week.

Mussina pitched poorly in the playoffs for Baltimore in 1996 and what he determined after that year was that he mishandled his starts, that he had treated them like special events. He decided he would treat postseason games like any other game he arrives at the ballpark at the same time, fills in a couple of crossword puzzles, reads a book, walks around the clubhouse a bit, chats with teammates. No big deal.

Reggie Jackson saw Mussina in the clubhouse before Mussina pitched against Oakland on Oct. 13 in the division series, and the next day Jackson told Mussina how impressed he had been by Mussina's calm. "But you know, I was doing the same things I've been doing all year," said Mussina, puzzling over Jackson's enthusiasm. "I was just walking around. That's all I was doing. After 300 games, I know how I should feel mentally about going out for a game."

Mussina pitched 10 years with the Orioles, in a ballpark he loved, within an easy drive of his Pennsylvania home. He had no desire to play anywhere else for most of those 10 years, and certainly not in New York, a place that which offended his small-town sensibilities. Too much traffic, too many people. But the Orioles' competitiveness eroded, the front office committed fully to rebuilding and Mussina decided to leave.

Much of what Mussina does is dictated by his own strong sense of logic, his decisions formulated like math equations. Mussina left central Pennsylvania to attend Stanford University surprising his parents because he thought Stanford could provide him with the best chance at an education as he developed his baseball career in a warm climate. A plus B equals C. He reasons, he makes choices, he does not regret.

No matter what Mussina signed for and he ultimately received an $88.5 million deal from the Yankees he knew he would be getting more money than he could spend in his lifetime. "The larger objective is what kind of peace of mind do you have: Do you like playing where you are playing?" he said. "Being on a successful team, having a chance to win, that is a large peace of mind. That's what I was looking for, a team that had a chance to compete for a championship every year, and after one season, that's where we stand. I make the assumption that every player in this business wants to win, and sometimes you have to make small sacrifices in order to do that."

"Baltimore was a place we were all comfortable with," said Mussina, referring to his wife and children, "and could've been a place we easily could have played the last six or seven or eight years. But I think if I had been on a club that struggled the way they struggled the last three years that I was there, I would've been miserable."

Late this season, Mussina felt some unexpected confirmation that he had made the right decision. "I had forgotten what it was like to feel good about the games in mid- August and September, because for me, it still feels like it's June," Mussina said. "When you're not even competing, when you're losing more than you're winning, the August and September days feel like they have 40 hours in them. This doesn't now, in the situation we're in. It's nice feeling that way about coming to the park."

Roger Clemens and Mussina came to the Yankees under similar circumstances and have developed a friendly rivalry. "Lucky old bag," Mussina said, assessing Clemens. "I think any time you have a year like the one we got into, there's some silent competition, sure. You all need motivation. In whatever way it presents itself, you need it. Until September, he was having the dream season for any player, let alone for someone 39 years old and really kept us close in certain periods of time. Since his little downturn, I've been able to help him out a little bit, beat him by one strikeout. When it's all said and done, it's two guys who have helped accomplish something."

Clemens spent most of his career with Boston, and for most baseball fans, he will probably always be remembered as a member of the Red Sox. But Clemens said last month that from a personal standpoint, what he believes he will remember most are the years in which he won championships; the championships, he said, will define his own self-perception. Mussina may feel that way as well, in time.

Mussina knew some of the Yankees before he signed, and now that they are teammates, nothing they have done surprises him, he said. Mussina assumed they had a reservoir of confidence. "You couldn't win as much as they have without that," he said.

He knew that they would not panic or overreact, and that they were absolutely sure they would find a way to win games. He probably did not realize his pitching would be one of those ways, or that "they" would become "we" so quickly.

     

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