Thursday, November 20, 2008
It is with a heavy heart that I comment on the upcoming retirement of Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina. One of my absolute favorite pitchers, and players, of all-time.
As a kid, one of my first little league teams was named the Orioles, and so I latched on to them as my team of choice behind the Twins and kept them there until Mussina left for the Yankees. It absolutely broke my heart that my hero would take the money and sign with the evil empire. As I got older, I was able to look at that decision with a more level head, and realized that it made sense for him. He was from Pennsylvania, and was always a homebody and a hometown boy, living in the same town he grew up in and even coaching his old high school's basketball team. New York was a drive away, rather than a flight from Baltimore, and given that he grew up a Yankee fan as well, I was able to forgive the decision, and went back to being a big fan.
It started one afternoon in 1991, when I was home and watching the Saturday game of the week, which pitted my beloved Orioles against the not-hated yet Chicago White Sox, who featured another favorite of mine, Tim Raines, getting on to the tail end of his career. The pitching matchup would be another favorite, knuckleballer Charlie Hough vs. a rookie pitcher for the Orioles named Mike Mussina. I tuned in to watch Hough's knuckler baffle hitters, always a fun thing to watch. It did, as Hough turned in a masterful performance, going the distance and giving up just five hits and 0 runs. But what I walked away from that game with was an absolute love of Mike Mussina and a kid's confidence that he was going to be one of the greats of all-time. In his very first career start, he went 7 and 2/3 and gave up just 4 hits and 1 run on a homerun to Frank Thomas. He was amazing, not overpowering anybody (just one strikeout) but I remember being enthralled by his use of five pitches (including a sweet knuckle curve) and his ability to change speeds and hit locations, resulting in a whole lot of weak swings by the fooled Sox.
Sometime in the next few days, my family went to a baseball card show when those were still around, and I snatched up every Mussina rookie card I could find, getting most for under a quarter. I was convinced I was going to be filthy rich in the future. Of course, baseball card values have tanked faster than oneseason.com, and he didn't quite turn into an all-time great, but still one hell of a pitcher.
This past season he won 20 games for the first time, and will become the first pitcher since Sandy Koufax to retire the season after winning 20. But don't let the just one 20 win season fool you, he was a victim of circumstance on many occasions. In 1994, he had 16 wins in 24 starts when the strike happened. Give him approximately 12 more starts, and it is very likely he would have won four of them. The following year, he finished with 19 wins, closing out the season with three straight complete games, two of them shutouts. In 1996, he again finished with 19 wins, after the bullpen blew leads in his final two starts. In addition, he won 18 games twice and 17 twice, and finishes out his career with 270 wins.
Hall of famer? Probably not. He was never considered the best pitcher in the league at any point in his career and never won a ring, despite being a pretty good postseason pitcher. If he had hung on and gotten to the 300 win mark, he would be a virtual lock, but it is not meant to be. Consider his consistency: At least 11 wins in all 17 full seasons of his career, and 9 top-six finishes in Cy Young voting. Perhaps most telling is the results of Bill James' four hall-of-fame tests. I won't go into a whole thing, but they are defined here. In three of the four tests, Mussina tests out as a likely Hall of Famer.
If he gets in, I am guessing it will be many, many years down the road, perhaps when the 300 win mark has become a complete thing of the past rather than merely a rarity. When the peaks of the careers of guys like Pedro and Randy Johnson aren't as fresh, and a more objective look at Mussina's career consistency can be had. He finishes up with 270 wins and an ERA of 3.68. There have been 23 eligible pitchers with 265 wins and an ERA under 3.69, and 20 of them are in the hall of fame. He ranks 33rd in career wins and 19th in career strikeouts. Expect a lengthy, entertaining, and probably ill-informed debate in five years.
If I had a vote, I'd put him in. Enjoy retirement and your precious crossword puzzles. Don't expect to see him doing much in the way of TV or professional coaching. If you want to read an excellent book chronicling his 2007 season (along with Tom Glavine's) with plenty of candid discussions from the pitchers, check out Living on the Black by John Feinstein, an excellent book and great look at two great pitchers at the end of their careers.