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O's Mussina files, takes first step out the door

Oct. 28, 2000

An eight-month wait since spring training and one of the least satisfying seasons of his 10-year career have left Mike Mussina little room for sentiment.

As the long-awaited free-agent filing period officially opened yesterday, Mussina was asked how long he would wait to officially submit his name to Major League Baseball?

"When does the office open?" he quipped.

A four-week separation from the Orioles' fourth-place season has done little to alter the dynamics confronting the team and its winningest pitcher of the past decade. Mussina's prophecy that nothing would be resolved before the filing period has been realized with little communication this month between the front office and his agent, Arn Tellem. All that was left to do was file.

Mussina officially became one of the first to do just that yesterday, and at 31 will challenge Mike Hampton as the most attractive free-agent pitcher in this year's thin market. It is the place Mussina expected to find himself ever since the Orioles failed to meet his minimum threshold of a five-year, $62.5 million bid in spring training.

"Once it's come to this point," Mussina said, "there's no reason not to go ahead."

Since season's end, little has changed for Mussina except for market value. The Toronto Blue Jays' recent signing of first baseman Carlos Delgado to a record four-year, $68 million contract has begun another round of escalation. Mussina says he will not settle for less than a six-year deal while remaining "flexible" on finances.

Mussina acknowledged Delgado's staggering contract has had "an indirect effect" on how he perceives his worth. "We're not comparing the same thing. But, nonetheless, it just shows that salaries are still escalating," Mussina said. "Somebody out there was willing to pay this guy. He wasn't even in a position of one team fighting for him against another team. There was no competition at all."

Coming off an 11-15 season offset by a 3.79 ERA and 210 strikeouts in 237 2/3 innings, Mussina will likely attract serious interest from eight to 10 teams, according to several industry executives. Numerous large-market teams, including the New York Yankees, New York Mets, Chicago White Sox, Atlanta Braves and Texas Rangers are expected to prime the bidding. The Cleveland Indians are also preparing to make a concerted push.

"Pitching is ultimately what gets teams to the World Series and pitching is extremely rare to find. Hitting is a lot easier to find," said Tellem. "You get a premier starter who can throw 200 innings and rank in the top five in ERA. There aren't too many of those. His value will be significant, but I have no idea where it will end up."

Though he has insisted he does not need to set the market for pitchers, many believe Mussina may receive offers challenging the $15 million average salaries of Kevin Brown and Roger Clemens.

"I'm not looking at it entirely as business," said Mussina, who lives in Montoursville, Pa., during the off-season, a four-hour drive from Baltimore and Cleveland. "There are a lot of other factors that go into the decision. It's not just a bottom-line decision. I'm honestly kind of curious. I'm curious as to what happens, how fast things go, how much time I spend on the phone ... whatever."

Mussina says he is still uncertain about the Orioles' direction. Though publicly committed to advancing players from within, the Orioles are also unlikely to return the team that went 31-31 over last season's final 62 games.

"You take the team we put on the field right at the end of the season. There will be improvement. They'll get better," Mussina said. "A year or two down the road, they'll get [Scott] Erickson back and the team will be very competitive, I think. "But what do they intend to do as far as other additions to the club? Are they going to take what they have and go with it until they improve and minor-league guys come up and contribute? Are they going to plug in other players and have a mix or go totally with youth?"

Mussina insists his decision will not be made in a vacuum. His chances of returning would improve "if I thought they were going to get two or three front-line players to add to the players we had. You play for serious improvement next year, and then you add your other starter and the next year play for the playoffs."

Mussina says he does not plan to tour the country speaking with suitors. He will conduct preliminary deliberations from his home, then visit a select few finalists.

While there is no reason to revisit Baltimore, either geographically or as far as negotiations, Mussina insists no bridges have been burned. Loyalty to the only organization he has known not only will break all ties but also may decide any close call.

"They're going to have the last option. It's eventually going to boil down to something," said Mussina. "I'm going to extend the common courtesy of calling them. I'll say, 'This is the offer I've gotten from another team. This is the one most attractive to me. How close can you get?' I'm going to give them the last option. Why wouldn't I? I've always said I wanted to stay."

Mussina no longer uses the term "home-team discount." While suggesting flexibility on finances, he said he plans to insist on nothing less than a six-year deal. The Orioles' last offer took them into Mussina's six-year neighborhood. However, majority owner Peter Angelos insisted earlier this month he will not engage in "economic insanity" to sign any player and sounded as if he is close to his limit financially with his prize pitcher.

A five-year, $50 million offer grew to $60 million over five years during spring training. That position was modified by Angelos in September, when he added a sixth year for an additional $12 million, bringing the total package to $72 million, including $12 million deferred without interest. Mussina says he is unaware of any modification of that proposal or if it even remains on the table.


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