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Winning Pitch Sure, the $88.5 million had a lot to do with Mike Mussina's decision to sign with the Yankees, but it was a call from manager Joe Torre that sealed the deal

Dec. 11, 2000
Dec. 11, 2000

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Dec. 11, 2000

Winning Pitch Sure, the $88.5 million had a lot to do with Mike Mussina's decision to sign with the Yankees, but it was a call from manager Joe Torre that sealed the deal

Manhattan at twilight, rich with possibilities, awaited him like a
buffet spread before a medieval king. Take from it what you wish,
the New York Yankees told Mike Mussina last Thursday. Dinner
reservations? A Broadway show? A chauffeured car? A five-star
hotel? The Yankees would make his every wish come true. This was
his baseball wedding night, Mussina having only minutes before
used a cheap plastic pen borrowed from a secretary's desktop to
sign his name to a six-year, $88.5 million commitment to play for
the Yankees, culminating a romance that would outdo Danielle
Steel.

This is an article from the Dec. 11, 2000 issue Original Layout

Mike, with his wife, Jana, at his side, stepped out of Yankee
Stadium into the chill of the advancing night. The brisk air felt
good after nearly three hours of interrogation and picture taking
by the New York media. "It was about what I thought, maybe a
little more," Mussina said of the spotlight. "I've pitched in
All-Star Games and postseason games, and that's how I'm going to
treat every one of my starts."

Now it was time to celebrate. At this, the crowning hour of his
career, there was but one place he craved: home. Manhattan be
damned, he was bound for Montoursville, Pa. (pop. 4,594), which
offers four hotels, 16 churches and the same small-town, central
Pennsylvania upbringing for their two children that he and Jana
enjoyed. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner provided his car, a
Cadillac, and his driver, Joe Flannino, to take the Mussinas to
Steinbrenner's time-share jet at Teterboro (N.J.) Airport, whence
they would be flown the 25 minutes to Williamsport, Pa.

Jana had been to New York City only once. Mike hadn't ventured
out much on his trips there during his 10 big league seasons, all
with the Baltimore Orioles, and had avoided Manhattan on a
two-day recruiting visit earlier in the week. He saw only his
hotel room in suburban Rye Brook, N.Y.; a restaurant in
Greenwich, Conn.; and a doctor's office (where he underwent a
physical) in Manhasset, N.Y.

Now only one obstacle remained: the George Washington Bridge at
five o'clock. At that hour the Hudson can be tougher to cross
than the Kwai. But as the Cadillac hummed onto the span,
something happened that would have seemed bizarre had it not been
in keeping with the Yankees' script for persuading Mussina to
betray his small-town allegiances for Gotham. An impossibly clear
expanse of roadway lay ahead, just begging to be enjoyed at the
decadent pace of 50 mph. "Uh, this is unusual," Flannino noted to
the out-of-towners.

Mussina, in search of financial security, a World Series
championship ring, a franchise within easy commuting distance of
his hometown and, most of all, a strong sense of being wanted,
had come to the right place. The wooing and signing of Mussina
made two lessons as clear as this night's GWB: Pitching is more
valuable than ever, and the Yankees play as well in November as
they do in October.

In the first moments after their fourth world championship
parade in five years, Yankees executives considered Mussina,
lefthander Mike Hampton and outfielder Manny Ramirez to be their
top free-agent targets on whom to use David Cone's $12 million
salary (and then some) that at season's end came off their $112
million payroll. (As of Monday, Cone, a free agent, was deciding
whether to accept New York's offer of a one-year contract for
$500,000 plus performance incentives.) They quickly ruled out
Hampton, who they figured would sign with a National League
team, and Ramirez, who demanded "between $18 million and $20
million a year," according to a Yankees source. (Each was still
unsigned as of Monday.)

Mussina brought stellar credentials to the market. His 11-15
record last year for the 74-88 Orioles, the first full-season
losing mark of his career, was as deceptive as one of his
devastating curves. His 3.79 ERA was third in the American
League, and his run support, 3.71 per nine innings, was the
lowest among the league's starters. Moreover, the cerebral
Stanford graduate fit New York's preferred profile: a
low-maintenance, reliable player--he pitched a league-leading
237 2/3 innings last season and has never had arm trouble--who
enhances the Yankees' philosophy that pitching is the mortar of
championships.

Says New York general manager Brian Cashman, "I still hear some
general managers say they'd never trade an every-day player for a
pitcher. That might have been true 30 years ago. The opposite is
true now. Pitching is just too scarce."

Three of the five highest-paid players in baseball are pitchers,
including Yankees righthander Roger Clemens ($15.45 million per
year) and Mussina ($14.75 million). The other is Los Angeles
Dodgers righthander Kevin Brown ($15 million). Two years after
Brown signed his deal, New York got a pitcher who's two years
younger than Brown was when he signed (Mussina will turn 32 on
Friday) and has a better career record (147-81 to Brown's 139-99
at the time). "They didn't just get a great pitcher," says one
agent of New York's coup, "they got a great deal."

Still, the Yankees, even though they made Mussina a whopping
financial offer, worried that he would not come to the Big Apple.
That changed on Nov. 7 when the phone rang at the Mussina house.
"Michael, you're not going to believe it," said Jana after
answering the call. "It's Joe Torre!"

Says Torre, the Yankees' Brooklyn-born manager, "I heard the
rumor that he didn't like New York all that much because of the
size of the city, and I didn't want that to be the deciding
factor without letting him know there are places in Westchester
[County] and Jersey where you can have quiet and space if you
want."

"I could tell after Mike got off the phone how excited he was,"
Jana said on the way to Teterboro.

"That was probably the lead reason why I ended up here," Mike
said.

Calls from Steinbrenner and Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter,
rightfielder Paul O'Neill and lefthander Andy Pettitte followed;
the players soft-pedaled the city's forbidding image. The New
York Mets also were in the bidding, and Mussina received calls
on their behalf from recently re-signed lefty reliever John
Franco and former Mets pitching star (and current broadcaster,
executive and special instructor) Tom Seaver. The Boston Red Sox
jumped in with an offer that neared that of the Yankees, but the
sincerity of the Yanks' quick first impression stuck with
Mussina. The Orioles, mired in a streak of three losing seasons
and negotiating in fitful, insufficient increments for the past
year, never made him feel wanted.

As the Cadillac neared the airport, Mussina was asked when he
figured he was gone from Baltimore. "Probably July," he said.
"They traded all those guys [principally, shortstop Mike Bordick,
first baseman Will Clark and leftfielder B.J. Surhoff], and no
one came to me and said, 'Look, here's what's going on, here's
our plan and here's how we want you to be a part of it.' It's
funny, too. When Cal [Ripken Jr.] signed [on Nov. 1], he never
called me. Never asked...anything."

The car turned into the airport. Once, Mussina was told, the
Yankees were a difficult sell, what with a wild card of an owner
and instability on the roster and in the managerial and coaching
ranks. "That's exactly what the Orioles have become," said
Mussina, who had five managers and seven pitching coaches over
the past seven years. "Every year I'd have a new pitching coach,
and methods changed. I'd take the first two or three months just
to listen and then decide what to do. It would be May or June
before I got a handle on things. The Mets? They reached the World
Series, and they changed the whole coaching staff."

The Yankees are the gold standard. What beluga is to caviar and
Boardwalk is to Monopoly, they are to baseball. Yes, they have
gobs of money, but so do other clubs, and Mussina didn't want
Mets money or Red Sox money or Orioles money. The Yankees are as
close to a sure thing as the sport has, especially with a
rotation that's so good, Mussina said he might not get to pitch
in a Division Series--assuming a sweep behind Clemens, Pettitte
and righthander Orlando Hernandez.

Mussina is fine with that. He's relieved to be rid of the
pressure he felt "every start, every inning, every pitch" that
came from being the ace on a poor Baltimore team. He is an
analytical type who would not agree to allow Orioles owner Peter
Angelos to trade him last summer because "I'm not the kind of
person who can play the hired gun, who's expected to win every
single time he pitches."

He's the career field goal record holder in Lycoming County high
school football history (18 for Montoursville High). He may be
the only red-blooded male in the county who feeds, not kills,
deer. He's a father who wants his children--Kyra, 10, and Brycen,
2--to be "as lucky as I was to attend one school district while
growing up." He's a pickup basketball player who held up
negotiations for a full day by fighting with the Yankees for the
right to play off-season games in the full-sized gym on his
100-acre property. (He won the right to do so every off-season up
until Dec. 31.)

No matter what the Yankees are paying him, Mussina belongs more
to Montoursville than to them. That was obvious as he climbed the
steps of the Citation X jet. He did have big plans that night. He
would be home in time for a dinner of Chinese takeout with the
kids. This week he will fit the plow blade to the tractor in time
for the first snowfall.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY V.J. LOVERO BYE-BYE BIRDIE The durable and deceptive Mussina sought the stability and support in New York that he found lacking in Baltimore.COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON

BASES UNLOADED

New Yankees righthander Mike Mussina is one of the best active
pitchers at keeping opponents off base. Here are the five
pitchers who have held the opposition to the lowest on-base
percentage (minimum 1,500 innings pitched).

PITCHER, CURRENT TEAM OPPONENTS' ON-BASE PCT./CAREER

Pedro Martinez, Red Sox .270
Greg Maddux, Braves .286
Curt Schilling, Diamondbacks .288
Bret Saberhagen, Red Sox* .288
Mike Mussina, Yankees .293

*Missed 2000 season with rotator-cuff injury

SOURCE: ELIAS SPORTS BUREAU