Dec. 6, 2000
Stepping between the 40-foot pines surrounding his house, Mike Mussina is 15 minutes from Divine Providence. That's the hospital where he was born, and the Little League field on which he played is even closer, 10 minutes if you obey the speed limit. It takes eight minutes to get to the house where his parents live, where he sought isolation as a child, in this isolated town.
Everything Mussina needs is contained within these boundaries, and he cannot foresee a time in his life when that will change -- and he abhors change, as his family knows. He can live anywhere now, and he is here, where there is one movie theater and three sub shops. Mussina planted more pine trees around his house last year, and when they are middle-aged he will be here, moving snow and grass and probably coaching at the high school where he was coached, nine minutes away.
There is stability here, predictability. Those traits do not apply to New York City, where Mussina has committed to spend the next six years of his baseball career, as a pitcher for the Yankees, for $88.5 million.
He will inevitably hear boos at Yankee Stadium, like every player from Ruth to DiMaggio to Mantle to Rivera. He will hear sirens from the dugout and see fires over the center-field horizon.
There is almost no sound on a windless, cold day where Mussina lives -- only the faint hum from I-180 several miles away, and from Broad Street, the two-lane road that runs through the center of Montoursville (population 4,983). Many streets here are named for trees, the intersections and houses built on straight lines and right angles. A boy riding his bicycle across town, perhaps to Indian Park, is recognized by neighbors who know his parents, or at least know of them; there are two degrees of separation in Montoursville. In 1996, 16 students and 5 chaperones from the Montoursville High French Club were killed on T.W.A. Flight 800, and the community was devastated.
When something is out of place in Montoursville, you can tell right away, Mussina's father said earlier this week.
Big Mike returned from his law practice at 6 o'clock every night. He was home on weekends, and he played catch with his two sons in the backyard. Ellie and Big Mike Mussina were awaken on Saturday mornings by loud thumping from the basement, where Little Mike threw a ball against a wall, aiming at a box he made with tape, rattling a radiator when he missed badly.
But he was usually pretty good, starring in Little League. Williamsport is only a few miles away, so the Mussinas attended the Little League World Series most years, and Big Mike thought it prudent to prepare Little Mike for the reality that there were a lot of other children who were pretty good at baseball.
"There must be 10,000 kids who do what you do," Big Mike said when the boy was 11.
"I don't think there are," Little Mike responded.
A year later, Big Mike stopped playing catch with his son because he simply threw too hard.
Little Mike was perfectly comfortable throwing alone, or kicking a football up and down an empty field, or shooting baskets alone. If a friend called Mike and asked him to go somewhere, that was fine, Ellie Mussina recalled. But Mike was never going to pick up the phone; he hated talking on the phone.
His brother Mark, younger by three years, was and is completely different, a social magnet. When Mark was in the fifth grade, he came home and announced that he would be the student council president when he was in eighth grade. Those words caromed off Mike, who was already in the eighth grade and locked into his reserve.
"Sometimes I wish I could be like that," Mike said to his mother.
The three students with the highest grade-point averages are designated to speak at the Montoursville High graduation. Mike finished fourth and was pleased. He hated the thought of standing before a large group of people and talking, his attention directed on them and their response, their attention on him.
But playing sports, pitching — somehow that became much different to him. He starred in football and basketball and baseball, and he didn't care if hundreds or even thousands of people were watching him. Three balls and two strikes, two outs, game on the line, it didn't matter. For Mike Mussina, it wasn't any different than all those hours he had spent alone in the basement.
"I'm still by myself when I'm on the mound," Mussina said today at his home here. "It's still me against that guy at the plate. I know I'm good enough to beat him, so I'm going to beat him. So that was it. It's just me doing something that I'm comfortable doing.
"I know what I'm doing. Some days I'm going to win, some days I'm going to lose. But I know the right thing to do. I know how to go about it, and in the long run, I'm going to come out ahead."
He wanted to get better at baseball, to find someplace that gave him the best chance to excel. His mother was shocked when Little Mike -- who had almost never left Montoursville in his lifetime -- chose to attend Stanford University, in California, where he could play baseball year-round.
"It was great, and I got everything out of it that I wanted to get out of it," he said. "If I could've played another year, I would have."
But he graduated in three years with a degree in economics, was drafted by the Orioles in 1990 and signed -- a fellow Montoursville alum, Tom O'Malley, hooked him up with an agent, Arn Tellem, who is also from Pennsylvania. Mussina was in the big leagues with Baltimore the next year.
At the Yankees' news conference to announce his signing last week, Mussina appeared stunned by the volume of cameras flashing continually, and he paused a couple of times to remark that surely the photographers had enough pictures. He folded his arms across his chest occasionally as he spoke, staring at the ground several times, seemingly unsure of where he might focus his eyes. Nothing in Montoursville causes this kind of discomfort for him. He is never this uncertain when he is pitching.
He will probably never fully embrace the idea of living in the New York area. Mussina went to Yankee Stadium as a boy, and his feelings of wariness mirrored his father's: too many cars, too many people, too many buildings. Too much. He worked out for the Yankees at the Stadium when he was a junior in high school, and somebody backed into the Mussinas' station wagon, confirming their image of a reckless city.
The Orioles stayed in Manhattan when they came to play the Yankees, and while Mussina rode the subway to the Bronx, he almost never left his hotel room. At the time he filed for free agency, his father did not think there was a chance Mussina would sign with the Yankees.
But Yankees Manager Joe Torre called first, and Andy Pettitte and other Yankees phoned as well. Mussina mentioned to his parents how honored he was that they felt he could help them, after the Yankees had had so much success. Methodical and resolute in how he makes decisions, Mussina eventually began to draw a parallel to the decision he made in choosing Stanford as a high school senior: if he wanted to take his baseball career to the next level, he was going to have to make a change. If he wanted to play with the best, he was going to have to go someplace totally unfamiliar, someplace completely different from Montoursville.
"When Baltimore dragged this out so long and never did anything," he said, "and they changed the offer only slightly but nothing to really stand up and take notice, I made up my mind: if I'm going to go, then I'm going to go to the place that gives me the best opportunity to go to the playoffs and win. At the start, I never thought it would be the Yankees. It wasn't that I didn't want to go to New York, it's just that I didn't think the Yankees would call -- and they called first, and most often."
Roger Clemens called Mussina last week, the night Mussina signed with the Yankees, talking rapidly for 30 minutes, excitedly, about how thrilled he was that the Yankees added such an established pitcher and how he couldn't wait for spring training. Mussina, who has a career record of 147-81, has never been a part of a World Series winner, and Clemens said the veterans would be driven by the prospect of winning a ring for him.
"Now I get to go to a three-time defending world champion," Mussina said, "with an M.V.P.-caliber shortstop, M.V.P.-caliber center fielder, Hall of Famer in the rotation, the best closer in the American League, postseason experience, one of the best managers in the game, and 53 years of Don Zimmer."
Mussina will probably live in Westchester County or Connecticut. Wary that his commuting would be lengthened by delays on the George Washington Bridge, he does not want to live in New Jersey.
"He just needs to be respected by his neighbors," his father said. "I think his feelings are: `If you drive by on the street, wave to me, but don't shove three baseballs in my face to sign for you. Pay as much attention to me as your other neighbors.' That's the difference between whether he likes it or not."
Mussina will be 37 when his contract with the Yankees expires, and he might play a few more years. Or he could retire, perhaps with numbers that will qualify him for the Hall of Fame, and certainly with enough money to live anywhere.
But he will live here, in a house on a hill protected by a forest of pine trees, with the gymnasium recently finished. This is where his children will grow up, in the same place where he grew up, where his wife was raised, where his parents live, in the middle of nowhere, 15 minutes from everything.
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