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The Accidental Superstar

Baltimore Magazine
April 1998

Orioles ace Mike Mussina tossed one of the hottest post-season performances in baseball last year. So why won't Baltimore's resident iceman warm up to his fame?

Just for a second, pretend you're a major league batter. Pretend it's October 1, 1997, the first game of the American League divisional playoffs. You've got a choice: the Baltimore Orioles' Mike Mussina or the Seattle Mariners' Randy Johnson. Who would you rather face?

Let's look at the evidence: Johnson is a dominating, 6-foot-10-inch freak of nature. He has a Charles Manson-like "game face," a beak nose that he hides menacingly behind an enormous mitt, wild stringy hair, and a 98-mph fastball. He has inspired grown men to duck and cover.

At six-one and 185 pounds, Mike Mussina is handsome and boyish, with neatly combed hair and a slender build, for a ballplayer. His pitching is all finesse, and his game face is that of a supremely focused little leaguer. Grown men have been known to underestimate him.

Then there's his reputation: Folks say Mike Mussina is not a big-game pitcher. He's a guy who folds under the pressure. He chokes. Johnson, on the other hand, is considered the game's premier stopper; when nothing less than a win will do, Randy is your man.

So the answer seems obvious. You want to face Mussina, right? Guess again.

There are certain things that make an athlete a superstar. For one thing, you have to be a great player. Mike Mussina is definitely that. But you also have to be a flashy player: slam dunks, strikeouts, Hail-Mary passes into the end zone, that sort of thing. Mussina struck out 218 batters last season, a career high, but he didn't do it in a particularly flashy way. He didn't pump his fists or strut around the field like a prize bull. He went about his business in, as they say, a quiet, orderly fashion.

And yes, he beat Randy Johnson that day in Seattle. Beat him decisively, in fact, in the deafening Kingdome, which some consider the most hostile environment in pro ball. Four days later, Mike beat Johnson again in Baltimore. And he went on to have one of the most dominating post-season performances of any pitcher on record. (In two starts against the Cleveland Indians, he struck out 25 men in 15 innings, including a 15-strikeout performance in game three, which set an American League Championship Series record.)

And now, sitting in the living room of his beautiful 100-acre ranch in Montoursville, Pennsylvania, looking like the homebody he is in sweatpants and a T-shirt, he reflects on this hero-making performance:

"I got lucky," shrugs Mike.

You got lucky?

"I don't believe that it's possible to pitch that way for that long a period of time without having a little bit of luck on your side," he explains.

This is not an act, folks. And it's not even humility. It's common sense and logic, the two guiding principles of Mike Mussina's life. And the two things that have always kept the man with the highest winning percentage of all active pitchers out of the spotlight. Until now.

We have this theory. We think it may be something in Mussina's personality -- his apparent lack of emotion, his high-IQ wit, his distaste for the sport's gung-ho clichés -- that has kept him from becoming a superstar. Sometimes fans demand that their heroes display a little boosterism. Mike's never going to give them that. He does, in fact, frequently seem infuriated by the relentless barrage of inane questions that tend to come a ballplayer's way.

Mussina is a funny guy, after a fashion. It's just that his sense of humor is deadpan and sarcastic and sometimes hard to read. That, coupled with his adamantine self-confidence, has caused more than a few people to accuse him of being a jerk; one local sportscaster casually refers to Mussina as "that arrogant s.o.b." Other reporters have been turned off by his cool, sometimes clinical post-game demeanor.

But his teammates say they've got it all wrong.

"No, he's not flamboyant, he's not a character, he doesn't enjoy talking about himself to the media or anybody else," says friend and teammate Scott Kamieniecki. "Look, he doesn't talk to us that much."

Mike's younger brother, Mark, thinks Mike's reticence reflects his upbringing. "We're a very analytical family," he says. "Dad's a lawyer. So we were raised to be logical. We're just not an overly emotional, Hallmark kind of bunch."

And Mussina says that, for him, emotion doesn't help him get the job done.

"What I do for a living, there's a lot of finesse involved," he explains. "There's a very fine line between being good and being bad. So...anything that affects that line, you try to eliminate."

Mussina is hardly known for his outbursts on the field. There was that one time last season when Davey Johnson yanked Mussina out of a Twins game a bit early for Mike's taste. (He felt he was just getting into a groove.) Mike threw a chair in the locker room.

But a more typical incident was the infamous 1993 All-Star Game at Camden Yards, when, after sitting out eight innings, Mike took it upon himself to start warming up in the bullpen, daring manager Cito Gaston to not put him in the game for the ninth in front of Mike's home-team crowd. Cito didn't.

A T-shirt was born (Cito Sucks; you can probably find one at the Goodwill). And that Mike Mussina cockiness was on display for the world to see.

The general rule here is: If Mike thinks you've done something inexcusably bone-headed, he'll let you know about it.

"Physical mistakes Mike can deal with," says Kamieniecki. "Everyone has those. But mental mistakes? No, he doesn't have much patience for those."

When innocently asked where he got his nickname-Moose-Mike gives that familiar look, a raised eyebrow of incredulity, an expression that suggests, what a moron.

"Moose-ina?" he says. "Get it?"

But then he laughs. "Or maybe it's because of my incredibly muscular stature."

In some ways, Mike Mussina has been dodging fame -- and people's expectations of what a famous person should act like -- since he was in high school, where he lettered in three sports: baseball, football, and basketball.

"You have to understand something," explains brother Mark. "Montoursville is a very small town. Philly is three hours away. Baltimore is three hours away. Sports are huge. The local CBS affiliate does live football games. Mike was always popular because he was a good athlete."

But Mike steadfastly refused to let this stuff go to his head. Even as a teen, he was as logical and orderly as an accountant. "His priorities were more in line than most adults I know," says one of Mike's high school baseball coaches, Mike Laychur. "I think he graduated fourth in his class. It was studying, practicing, and then girls. He's always been very mature, very composed."

And very shy. Or at least, private.

"Mike is not one to seek acclaim or fame or personal gratification," explains Mike's pitching coach and new Orioles manager Ray Miller. "He gets all his pleasure in sports and going out and playing. He gets all the gratification he needs in his results."

So he lives in this sleepy town in northern Pennsylvania, three hours north of Camden Yards and a world away from the relentless attention and pressure of professional ball. In the off-season, he coaches football at his old high school. He just married his hometown sweetheart, Jana, and enjoys staying home to "watch the trees and the grass grow."

"Mike values a normal life," Ray Miller says. "That's why he lives in a small town."

Mussina doesn't party. Doesn't cheat on his wife. Doesn't trash hotel rooms. His idea of having a good time is sitting in an easy chair in front of his big-screen TV and watching the Wall Street stock ticker roll by on CNN.

"Maybe he's a closet drinker," jokes Scott Kamieniecki.

Nice try.

For Mike, pitching has always been the easy part. He was a highly touted prospect out of Stanford. (His major was -- surprise -- economics.) And after being drafted by the Orioles in 1990, he was brought up to Baltimore in the middle of the '91 campaign. He was great out of the gate. So great, in fact -- leading major league rookies with a 2.87 ERA, going 18-5 his first full year in pro ball -- that his greatness came to be expected. He had calmly assumed the role of stopper, of staff ace, of go-to guy.

Ray Miller says it's Mike's ability to focus that sets him apart.

"We all have the ability to concentrate on our job," Miller says. "But to concentrate every second of every minute for three and a half hours -- I mean, one lapse and you get burnt. Only the exceptional ones can do that. Mike has a kind of tunnel vision when he pitches. He gets locked into that kind of zone."

But Mussina has this uncanny knack for just missing the sort of touchstones that put a pitcher on the map. He's never won a Cy Young Award, never been a 20-game winner (though he won 19 in both 1995 and '96), and never pitched a no-hitter. Last season, Mike pitched a near-perfect game against Cleveland -- not just a no-hitter, a perfect game: no walks, no hit batters, nothing. Then, with one out in the ninth inning, he ran into a red-hot Sandy Alomar Jr. A line-drive single and Mike has to settle for a one-hitter. One-hitters are impressive. But they don't make you a star.

Mussina could deal with that. He doesn't want to be a star. But along with his low-profile came a nagging reputation that he couldn't come through in big games.

Until that first Seattle duel with Johnson, Mike had only pitched in one post-season, and it was a decidedly non-dominating performance. In 1996 he pitched decently against Cleveland (three earned runs in six innings), blew a lead against New York (eight hits and five earned runs in 7-2/3 innings), and lost both games. That's it. Two games and everyone thinks they've got a handle on Mike Mussina.

"You can't change people's perception of you," Mussina sighs. "But yeah, it stung."

Forgotten in all this was the fact that Mike Mussina has quietly assembled the best winning percentage (.682) of all active pitchers. Better than Greg Maddox, better than Roger Clemens, better than -- yes -- Randy Johnson. Mike wins more often than they do. Nobody seemed to notice that.

But this post-season may have finally served as a wake-up call: Pay attention to our guy. Our guy can pitch.

"I've never seen anyone pitch like that," says Ray Miller of Mike's post-season play. "It was unbelievable to watch. I've had some tremendous pitchers -- Jim Palmer, Scott McGregor, Mike Flanagan. But what he did back to's just..." Ray Miller searches for the word. "Unbelievable."

You said that already.

The weight room at Montoursville High School looks like a scene out of some old Boy Scout training film. Solid-looking kids in gray sweats lift weights and shout words of encouragement. On one side of the room, no one pays much attention to the slightly older guys going through their paces on the equipment. Even if the guy over at the bench press happens to be Mike Mussina.

The same is true in the hallways of this high school that time forgot. There, framed inconspicuously among color photos of the school's star athletes through the years, is 1986 All-American Mike Mussina. Not a special wall devoted to him. Not a plaque. Just another photo in a gallery. No big deal.

Just the way Mike likes it.

"It's pretty easy to find him during the off-season," says his brother Mark. "It's no big deal anymore. Anyone who wants Mike's autograph has already got it."

Of course, he can't completely avoid the trappings of fame, not even in Montoursville.

At Cellini's sub shop on Broad Street ("Where the Champions Eat"), owner Charlie DeSanto can chew your ear off for hours about Mike Mussina, his favorite customer. DeSanto, a burly guy with a fuzzy beard and square glasses, also coaches the local little league team. He admits to being something of a Yankees fan, but he's "an Orioles fan when Mike is on the mound."

Behind DeSanto on the wall are clippings and signed pictures of Mussina-Mike hurling the ball, Mike smiling handsomely.

"Oh yeah. He comes in here all of the time," he brags. "Sometimes he even gets behind the counter and makes the subs himself."

But there's one problem for Coach DeSanto: "Every kid in Montoursville wants to be Mike Mussina. I need outfielders! I need first basemen! Not everyone can be the pitcher!"

Mussina points to the trophy case in his living room, a handsome glass-fronted cabinet full of All-Star memorabilia, a team photo, a signed ball. "My dad made that," he says proudly. "Pretty good craftsmanship, huh?"

Mussina's parents live only a few minutes away from his ranch. His father Malcolm comes by often to mow the lawn (he likes to do it, Mike insists), and work in the wood shed that his son built for him. Mike steers clear of Dad's woodworking. "That's all I gotta do," Mike laughs grimly. "Slice two fingers off. Then I can call Pat [Gillick] and say, 'Hey, Pat, I sliced two fingers off. But you still owe me 16 mil!'"

Mussina signed a pretty hefty contract extension last year -- three years, $21.5 million. But it was actually considered below market value. "Yeah, I could've made more if I'd become a free agent," Mike shrugs. "But I would rather walk in the clubhouse and feel like this is the place I want to be playing....That's why I don't care that I could've made a couple million more a year...playing in Phoenix or Tampa or Cleveland or someplace like that. I just wanted to play in Baltimore. And that was it."

He could easily have forced the issue, but he didn't want to. He just wanted to play for the Orioles, the only team he's ever played for, and stay in Montoursville, the only place he's ever lived.

"When my whole career is said and done, I can say, yeah, I threw the ball well," he says reflectively. That's about as effusive as he ever gets. "But for now it's one game at a time. Just because I struck out 41 guys in the post-season doesn't mean I can skip a day of workouts."

And there's the rub. If Mike Mussina was just your average sullen, aloof fireballer who didn't like reporters, he'd be intolerable. But Mussina's sometimes chilly demeanor hides one of the greatest work ethics in the game. He's also as loyal as a St. Bernard, with an unassuming, aw-shucks streak that can take even friends by surprise.

Mussina's new wife, Jana, a petite, girl-next-door type, also went to his high school (of course). She knew him then, but he was two years younger and already a sports superstar. "Even though he was younger, he intimidated me," Jana admits.

In 1991, years after graduation -- by this time, Jana had already been married, given birth to a baby daughter, Kyra, and divorced-they went out with a group of friends. She was shocked when Mike took her aside and asked her out. They had a church wedding this November. Cal Ripken and Brady Anderson were in attendance. It was the talk of Montoursville.

And suddenly, Mike Mussina -- single guy, multi-millionaire -- has a wife and a young daughter. "He's great with Kyra," says Jana. "He's really affectionate. He hugs her and kisses her. He's her true father figure."

"It's put things in perspective for Mike," says Mark Mussina. "He seems to have loosened up a bit."

So how does Mike approach fatherhood? Like everything else in his life: with a desire to do it right. "I've never had a relationship like this before," Mike says, and his voice sounds tentative and gentle. "I'm not sure I started out doing everything right, but I think I've gotten the hang of it."

Mike Mussina was supposed to be mad. The last game of the ALCS and he just pitched his heart out. He gave up one hit in eight innings. And the team couldn't score a measly run for him. Nope, that honor went to Cleveland's Tony Fernandez, who hit a game-winning homer off a hanging slider from Armando Benitez in the 11th inning. Cleveland 1, Orioles 0. Thank you for playing. End of season. Now pack your bags and go home.

In the locker room, no one knows what to say to Mike. His performance has gone for nothing. All that work, all that supreme effort. He carried the team on his back, as left-fielder B.J. Surhoff was quoted as saying. Would he be mad? Would he be throwing things?

Get real.

Mike stood by his locker with a tight smile locked onto his face, looking a trifle bummed, a trifle dazed, enduring the moment he hated most: Talking about himself and another of his stellar performances.

One by one, players shuffled up to him sheepishly, wearing pained, apologetic faces for the season they had let slip away. B.J. Surhoff huddled with Mike, shaking his head grimly. The theme was apparent:

Sorry, man. We let you down.

Play-by-play man Fred Manfra approached Mussina and gripped the pitcher's hand earnestly. "I've never seen anything like it," Manfra said simply.

Mussina smiled. "And you may never see it again," he said.

Most of the reporters were still in the raucous Indians clubhouse, but a few approached Mussina now and thrust mikes in his face. Uh-oh. Here it comes.

"Are you frustrated with your team?"

"It's not frustrating," Mike said diplomatically. "It's my job to keep us in the game. I think I did that."

He meant it. And he still does.

"No, I'm not upset about it," he says now. "I've played this game too long and I've been in situations where the guys score six or seven runs for me and I can't hold [the opposing team] down. It works the same both ways. That's the way the game works."

And that's the way Mike works. It just wouldn't be logical to blame his teammates; that would be an emotional response, not a measured one.

Back in the locker room, a reporter -- hard-up for a question, perhaps -- innocently asked the glaringly obvious.

"Mike, what was the turning point in the game?"

A familiar look crossed Mike's face: mirth, disbelief, impatience. What a moron.

"You can figure it out," Mike said. "Your name's going on the article."

The press laughed in relief. Same ol' Mike. Same cocky, droll, feel-no-pain rock of consistency. Same as it ever was.


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