It is late on a mid-January evening when the coach of the
Montoursville High jayvee basketball team walks into the living
room of his parents' home in north central Pennsylvania. Small
talk is exchanged as Mike Mussina solemnly flips through a short
stack of mail. Finally, after a brief silence, Eleanor Mussina
creases her lips into a wicked little grin and asks her oldest
son, with as much innocence as she can muster, "So, Mike, how
did the game go?"
This is an article from the March 12, 1996 issue
Suddenly Mike's eyes flash as if turned on by a switch. "How did
the game go?" he repeats. "We lost. Again. I don't understand
it. These kids, they'll practice when it's in-season. But out of
season, it's like, Come on guys, pick up a basketball once in a
while. But they don't want to. No, they want to get jobs. Or
play Nintendo." And with a roll of the eyes he mutters, "The
Now there is calm. But his mother can't help herself. She starts
to laugh. "You need this, Mike," she says.
Mike, though, doesn't see the humor. His team is 4-8. He has
never been 4-8 in his life. In anything. Several minutes later,
the ace of the Baltimore Orioles pitching staff delivers a quick
goodbye and is off to his 102-acre spread on the edge of town.
As he leaves, his mother lets loose one last laugh. "He needs
this," she tells a visitor, as if losing were a plate of
spinach. "It's good for him."
"I don't ever expect Mike Mussina to lose," says Hall of Famer
and former Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer. "There's only one better
righthanded pitcher in baseball, and that's Greg Maddux. And I
don't see why Mike can't be as good as Maddux down the road."
Since breaking in with Baltimore in July 1991, a scant 28 starts
in the minors to his resume, Mussina has gone 71-30. His career
winning percentage, .703, is the highest of any current pitcher
with at least 75 decisions. He has pitched into the seventh
inning an astounding 100 times in 125 career starts and has
never lost more than two games in a row. After the seventh
inning, batters are hitting .227 against him. Among active
pitchers, only Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens and Dwight
Gooden, the former Met now with the Yankees, had more wins (79
and 73, respectively) during their first four full seasons in
the majors. Even the inimitable Maddux was just 67-46. Last year
Mussina finished 19-9 and, despite the strike-shortened season
and a shaky start, might still have won 20 games but for one
27-inning stretch during which the Birds didn't score a run for
All the while Mussina has made it seem simple. He does not watch
film of himself or opposing hitters, relying instead on memory
to recall a batter's strengths and weaknesses. During one game
in 1992, his first full season in the majors, then-Orioles
pitching coach Dick Bosman observed that Mussina was too
deliberate in delivering the ball to home plate. "I can speed up
my motion," Mussina answered dryly. An inning later Bosman was
stunned to watch Mussina accelerate his delivery by nearly a
full second--a veritable dog year--without any loss of velocity,
accuracy or fluidity.
Mussina shrugs when reminded of such stories. "I'll tell you
what impresses me," he says. "I remember watching a game last
year that Maddux was pitching. Charlie O'Brien is catching,
gives him a sign, moves to the outside corner and puts up his
target. Then, get this, O'Brien turns his head and looks to the
on-deck circle--while Maddux is in the middle of his windup.
When he looks back, the ball is right in his mitt. Charlie
wasn't even paying attention because he knew the ball was going
to hit him right in the glove. I'd never tell my catcher to look
Like Maddux, the 6'2", 185-pound Mussina cuts an unimposing
figure on the mound. And also like Maddux, Mussina's slight
frame belies a fiercely competitive spirit within. Even at
Montoursville High when it was clear that his future lay in
baseball, Mussina insisted on devoting himself to basketball and
football as well. On the hardwood he was a sharpshooting guard
whose 1,382 career points remains the second-best mark in school
history. In football he played nearly every down, once kicked a
60-yard field goal and was recruited by Joe Paterno to be a
placekicker at Penn State. "In every sport he played positions
where he was in a strong position to control the outcome of the
game," says his younger brother, Mark. "You've also probably
noticed that he needs to be around sports." Indeed, in the
off-season Mike is not only the coach of the Montoursville
jayvee basketball team but also an assistant with the varsity
squad and an assistant for the football team.
Mussina's own baseball career at Montoursville drew much notice.
He was Pennsylvania Baseball Player of the Year in both 1986 and
'87, putting together a 24-4 overall record. The Orioles drafted
him in the 11th round, offering him $200,000, but Mussina opted
to attend Stanford instead.
Despite a 9-4 mark, he was often hit hard during his freshman
year. Says Mussina, "I was just an older high school kid who
thought his fastball and an occasional curve were good enough."
He pauses for a moment. "They weren't." So during the subsequent
two years he honed a knuckle curve, put some movement on his
fastball and developed a straight change. In the 1990 draft he
was again selected by Baltimore, this time with the 20th pick in
the first round.
His Orioles career, while consistently stellar, has not been
without pratfalls. After being hammered in an 11-0 loss to
Cleveland last June, Mussina dropped to 5-4 with a whopping--by
his standards--4.39 ERA. The day after the loss, Indians pitcher
Dennis Martinez approached him. Martinez, too, had enjoyed
considerable success with Baltimore during the early years of
his career, winning 108 games between 1976 and '85. "Dennis
thought I wasn't setting up hitters or pitching inside
effectively," Mussina says. "More than anything, though, he
wanted to remind me not to take anything for granted."
After losing his next start, Mussina won his next eight
decisions. "The truth is, things were so bad that I would've
pitched lefthanded if Dennis had suggested it," he says. "I had
lost some of my edge and learned I had taken success a little
for granted. Maybe I needed to struggle, lose a few games. Maybe
it was good for me."