An ace in an era dominated by hitting, Mussina spent a decade fronting the Baltimore Orioles starting rotation before jumping ship to don Yankee pinstripes. A hybrid of a control and a power pitcher, he could blow a mid-90s fastball through a hitter’s wheelhouse as easily as he could drop his patented knuckle-curveball on the outside corner. With a fluid delivery and a slender, compact build in the Jim Palmer and Tom Seaver mold, Mussina exemplified poise and athleticism on the mound. Off the field he carried himself with an intellectual loner’s reserve, always polite, but often moody and seldom forthcoming.
Baltimore picked Mussina out of Stanford University (where he earned an economics degree in only three-and-a-half years) with the 20th overall selection of the June 1990 free-agent draft. He reached the majors just over a year later and immediately joined the Orioles rotation. A polished starter from the first time he took the mound, Mussina notched a 2.88 ERA in his 12 rookie starts. In his major-league debut on August 4, 1991 he lost 1-0 to the Chicago White Sox on a home run by Frank Thomas, who would prove a nemesis for years to come. Powerful right-handed sluggers like Thomas, Albert Belle and Jose Canseco would haunt Mussina throughout his career.
In his first full season, the 23-year-old Mussina put together one of the best years by a young hurler in recent memory. While posting an 18-5 record, he led the major leagues in winning percentage and finished third in the AL with a 2.54 ERA. No American League starter had recorded a lower ERA at such a young age since Frank Tanana and Mark Fidrych both did so in 1976.
Throughout his 10 years with the Orioles, the four-time Gold Glover winner was a model of consistency. His only losing seasons came during his abbreviated 4-5 rookie campaign and his 11-15 swansong in 2000, when he finished with the third best ERA in the league (3.79) but received the worst run support of any AL starter. He won at least 13 games in his eight other seasons with Baltimore, topping out at 19 wins in 1995 and 1996. He was the winning pitcher on September 6, 1995 when teammate Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played record. At the time of Mussina’s departure, he ranked third in club history with 147 victories.
Heir to the grand Orioles pitching fraternity that boasted the likes of Palmer, Dave McNally and Mike Flanagan, Mussina was sometimes judged harshly for his failure to live up to his predecessors. The Orioles had once been synonymous with great pitching, but by the time Mussina arrived, the club hadn’t produced a 20-game winner since Mike Boddicker in 1984, a Cy Young Award winner since Steve Stone in 1980 or a complete-game no-hitter since Palmer in 1969. Mussina would come tantalizingly close but fall short in all three categories.
His failure to reach the 20-win benchmark had more to do with bad luck than bad pitches. The player’s strike likely cost him a 20-win season both in 1994, when he had racked up 16 wins before the season abruptly ended in mid-August, and in 1995, when he won 19 game but was deprived at least three starts by the truncated 144-game schedule. In 1996 he couldn’t nail down a final victory after hitting 19 wins with four starts left. In the penultimate game of the season he staked the Orioles to a 2-1 lead only to watch closer Randy Myers let in the tying run in the ninth inning. In 1999 he won 18 games but missed four starts in August and September after he was struck in the right deltoid by a liner off the bat of Brook Fordyce.
Equally frustrating were Mussina’s string of near no-hitters. On May 30, 1997 he retired the first 25 Cleveland Indians before catcher Sandy Alomar, Jr. lined a single to left field with one out in the ninth, denying him what would have been the first perfect game in franchise history. (The following May, Alomar would drill a single that hit just below Mussina’s right eye, bloodying his face, fracturing his nose and sending him to the DL for three weeks.) After fanning the last two hitters, Mussina settled for a one-hit, 10-strikeout shutout. Less than a month later he tossed seven no-hit innings at Milwaukee before Jose Valentin opened the eighth inning with a single. He flirted with perfection again the next season, setting down the first 23 Detroit Tigers on August 4, 1998 before giving up a two-out eighth-inning double to Frank Catalanotto.
Though his tendency to challenge hitters in the strike zone often produced high longball totals, when Mussina had full command of his pitching arsenal opposing batters had little chance. He could throw any of five pitches to any location on any count, and was more than capable of surviving on pure heat if need be. Such a need arose during the sixth inning of the 1999 All-Star Game, when he faced record-setting home run hitters Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa with one out and runners on second and third. After throwing a first-pitch ball to Sosa, Mussina fired six straight fastballs past the dynamic duo, catching Sosa looking and McGwire swinging.
In a more notorious All-Star moment, Mussina incited the Baltimore crowd and angered AL All-Star manager Cito Gaston by warming up in the bullpen during the ninth inning of the 1993 Mid-Summer Classic at Camden Yards. When Gaston failed to bring Mussina into the game to pitch before his hometown fans, the game ended in a chorus of boos directed at the Toronto skipper. Mussina later claimed he was simply getting in his regular work between starts.
After suffering a humiliating loss in Game Three of the 1996 ALCS, when he blew a 1-0 eighth-inning lead by surrendering five straight two-out runs to the Yankees, Mussina redeemed himself with a dominant post-season pitching performance in October 1997. Dogged by whispers that he couldn’t win the big game, Mussina proved his critics wrong by beating Seattle ace Randy Johnson in both the opener and the decisive fourth game of the Division Series. He worked the clincher on three days rest, allowing one run in seven innings to a Mariners team that had bashed its way to new a single-season team home run record. “We didn’t expect Cy Young to pitch two great games for them,” Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez said afterwards.
Mussina followed up his ALDS heroics with two of the most valiant no-decisions in playoff pitching history. He established a League Championship Series record with 15 strikeouts vs. Cleveland in Game Three, a 2-1 12-inning loss for the Orioles. (The record was tied the very next day by Florida’s Livan Hernandez in the NLCS.) With Baltimore needing a win to force a seventh game, Mussina tossed eight shutout innings of one-hit ball in Game Six, all to no avail as the club lost 1-0 on an 11th inning home run by Tony Fernandez. In his two starts against the Indians, Mussina allowed just one run and four hits in 15 innings of work, fanning 25 and walking four. The Orioles failed to score a single run with their ace on the hill.
After back-to-back playoff berths, however, Baltimore skidded to three-straight losing seasons. Mussina managed to win 31 games (including an 18-7 mark in 1999, when he finished second to Pedro Martinez in Cy Young voting) the first two years, but his debacle in 2000 paved the way for his departure.
After his stellar ’97 season, Mussina had declined to test the free-agent market and accepted what Players Union chief Donald Fehr referred to as a “garden variety” three-year contract. The deal had also drawn criticism from Braves’ southpaw Tom Glavine for lowering the asking price on top pitchers. This time around, Mussina asked the Orioles for a five or six-year deal at fair-market value. Negotiations with owner Peter Angelos dragged on from spring training through mid-season, and when the Orioles purged their high-priced veteran core in a series of deadline trades, the writing was on the wall. Unhappy with the salary dump, Mussina took out his anger against the hapless Minnesota Twins on August 1st, when he made his first start since the trades. While tossing a one-hit shutout, he set an Orioles single-game record with 15 strikeouts (he also owned the franchise season record with 218 K’s in 1997).
Unhappy with Angelos’ bungling of his contract talks and convinced that the Orioles wouldn’t return to the post-season anytime soon, Mussina signed a six-year $88.5 million deal with the division rival Yankees on November 30, 2000. Mussina later cited a recruitment call from New York skipper Joe Torre, which came just days after the Yankee manager had led the Bronx Bombers to their third straight World Series title, as a major factor in his decision to sign with the club. Ironically, poor run support would plague him in his first season with New York as it had in his last with Baltimore. Mussina won 17 games but lost 11 times in 2001, belying a 3.15 ERA that ranked second in the league.
His no-hit karma also followed him north. In a nationally televised Sunday night game on September 2, 2001 he tossed another near-masterpiece at Boston’s Fenway Park. When the Yankees finally broke a scoreless tie with an unearned run off veteran David Cone in the top of the ninth, Mussina needed only three outs to complete a perfect game. After retiring the first two batters of the inning, he got ahead of pinch-hitter Carl Everett 1-2 before the BoSox outfielder punched a high fastball into left-center field to ruin his bid at pitching immortality.
At the conclusion of each baseball season Mussina returned to his hometown and offseason residence in Montoursville, Pennsylvania, where he coached receivers, defensive backs and kickers for the local high school football team. After the crash of TWA Flight 800 in July 1996 killed 16 students from the school, Mussina pitched with the names of the students written on the bill of his cap.