I read in the paper this morning that Mike Mussina is on this year’s ballot for the baseball Hall of Fame. I really liked Mike Mussina. I liked that he was smart. I liked that he was low key. I liked watching the guy pitch. He was a very good pitcher in his day. Maybe a great one. Maybe even a Hall of Fame one. I kind of don’t care.1
What I want to do instead, is take a brief walk down memory lane. And by memory lane, I mean, I’m going to give carte blanche to my imperfect memory. I’m not going to look up any stats or box scores or anything else like that.2 Essentially, I’m going to put metaphorical pen to proverbial paper and just reminisce for a bit. And since nobody really reads this thing, I don’t think I need to apologize for that.
My earliest memory of Mike Mussina is of an old man in a hospital bed. No wait, let me back up. Moose (which was his nickname) was a big deal pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles in the 90’s. Or so I learned after the fact. This is the part where I admit that I checked out of baseball after the strike, and only came back towards the end of the ’98 season, when the Yankees did that whole ’98 Yankees thing.3 All this to say, I wasn’t really aware of the guy until the Yanks picked him up as a free agent before the 2001 season.4 This was the same year (if I’ve got the year right) that the Yanks decided to kick Tino Martinez’ golden glove5 to the curb in favor of Jason Giambi, who promptly forgot how to hit for average.6 Point being, the Yanks were making some big changes after losing a simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking World Series to the Diamondbacks of Arizona. Enter Mike Mussina, stage left. Or through the bullpen door actually. So, enter Mike Mussina, stage door left-center, I guess.
My earliest memory of Mike Mussina is of an old man in a hospital bed. I was visiting my dad in the hospital, who was in on some or other heart business. And in the next bed, behind the curtain, there was an old man. Now here’s where things get a bit fuzzy. In my mind, he’s laying in bed, with a transistor radio on, listening to the Mets. He obviously wasn’t though, because the Yanks had only just signed Moose, and so it was clearly the offseason. In any case, it’s more romantic if he’s listening to the Mets game. So that’s what he’s doing. And his son is there, visiting. And the son asks his father what he thinks of the Mussina singing. And the old man says – and this is the party I actually remember vividly – the old man says, “Damned Hessian.” He called him a Hessian! As in the German mercenaries who signed up to fight for the British during the Revolution. The guys whose only loyalty was to the dollar.7
Well, needless to say, no Yankee fan would ever characterize a free agent signee as a Hessian. This is why I assume he was listening to a Mets game. But really what I assumed was, that this old gentleman had to be a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. One of the proud, old few. One of the survivors. One of those who is accorded instant respect for having survived the greatest non-genocide related loss of the 20th century. And I imagined this fellow as an old Carthaginian, wandering the streets of Rome. And the Romans giving him wide passage and great respect, for his loss as much as his pride. And knowing all the while that the dude had seen some shit. The sort of shit they were never going to see. Whether it was Jackie Robinson stealing home or Hannibal marshalling his troops. Whether it was the burning of Carthage or the demolition of Ebbets Field. The man comes with instant respect. And this man was calling Mussina a Hessian. Not because he hates Mussina. But because he hates the Roman Yankees. That was my first memory of the man they called Moose.
But let me turn now to the good stuff. The baseball memories. And as I try to arrange my memories, I start to notice how fact begets memory begets myth. And so what follows will be mostly myth, somewhat less memory, and hardly fact at all. But there’s a kernel of truth in here somewhere.
The myth of Mike Mussina is a myth of heroic failure. In his first year, Moose got the least run support of any pitcher on the staff. I want to say that there was an early game against Kansas City or Minnesota or some other team the Yankees are never supposed to lose to. And Moose goes out there and pitches eight innings, strikes out nine guys and loses 2-1. Most of his starts went like that that year.8 But these kinds of games set the stage for the truly epic titanomachies he would enter into with the best pitcher in baseball, one Pedro Martinez. Who just happened to pitch for the arch-nemesis Boston Red Sox.
For a couple of years there, it felt like Moose and Pedro would get matched up something on the order of ten times a summer. And let me tell you, those were some incredible pitcher’s duels. Those two would go out and match zeros all afternoon long.9 Pedro would strike out the side and Moose would come back and do the same. It got to the point where the matchups became highly anticipated gladiatorial events. Now Moose was always classy about this. When reporters would ask him what it’s like to match up against the great Pedro Martinez, he would invariably say something like, “I’m not pitching against Pedro. I’m pitching against the Red Sox batters.” It’s the sort of thing Derek Jeter would say if Derek Jeter was a pitcher.10 So you had to respect that.
But as I say, these were truly epic pitching duels. If memory serves, and it clearly does not, those two would go out there and toss 13 scoreless innings at a clip, only to win or lose 1-0 on some play that was clearly not their fault. In actuality, more often than not, they’d both be gone by the seventh, leaving a scoreless game to be given away by lesser arms out of the bullpen. But it sure felt like they would regularly take shutouts into extra innings. In the end, the details don’t really matter. It was the feeling of it. The excitement of watching two expert craftsman ply their trade. It was the drama of watching two heroic warriors hold back the onslaught of the other side’s awful firepower. It was Ajax holding back the Trojans from Achaean ships. It was Hector defending the walls of Troy. It was baseball.
However, Mike Mussina’s greatest triumph in pinstripes came during game seven of the 2003 ALCS. Against Boston. Against Pedro. It had to. People remember a lot of things about this game. And with good reason. A lot of amazing things happened in this game. There was Grady Little leaving Pedro in too long. There was Jorge Posada hitting that big double. There was Pedro finally leaving the game and taking Grady’s job with him. There was Mariano Rivera pitching, like, literally twenty-three scoreless innings in relief. There was, of course, the Aaron Boone home run in the bottom of the whatever, off Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball, his trot around the bases and into Yankee immortality forever etched in the minds of those who witnessed it. But there was Moose also.
Roger Clemens started the game for the Yanks. And for whatever reason, he came out in the early innings. And by ‘for whatever reason,’ I mean he was awful. So he was awful ‘for whatever reason.’ But his awfulness is what brought him out of the game early. With the bases loaded. And no outs.11 Well, who do you turn to in do-or-die game seven when it’s only the third or so inning and the bases are loaded? You can’t bring in Rivera, because you’re saving him for later, when he’s going to need to pitch, like, literally twenty-three innings of scoreless relief. Well, if you’re Joe Torre, you turned to Mike Mussina. A guy who probably had never pitched so much as one out of relief in his professional career.12 And what does Mussina do? Well, he does that thing in his windup where he bends low at the waist and looks behind him to check the runners. Then he does that thing where retires the side and gets your team out of the biggest jam of the year.13 Then you do that thing where you just stare at the TV in disbelief at what you just witnessed. And when you finally put it all together, you jump and yell and high-five the guys you’re with. And you immediately start talking about how you’ve never seen anything like that, and how you’re going to be talking about this for years to come, and ohmigod, they still need to figure out how to hit Pedro…
But that was the day when I realized I could root for Mike Mussina. It was the day I realized this guy was fit to wear the pinstripes. Not in that Andy Pettitte way, mind you. Because nobody’s Andy Pettitte. But in the long line of free agents that came through the Bronx in that decade, he was one of two guys who you felt like deserved to be Yankees. The other, of course, was Hideki Matsui. The rest were, let’s face it, a bunch of Hessians.
Two other memories of Moose deserve mention. One was the time he took a perfect game14 into the 9th inning at Fenway, only to have Carl Everett ruin it at the last possible moment. I wanted that one for him so badly. Moose could never find his way to twenty wins in a season. He always seemed to get the short end against Pedro. He had that lousy run support. Man, I really wanted him to get that game. But no, the Red Sox ruined it. Like they ruin everything. And of course, I was watching that game in my friend’s dorm room at college. My friend who happened to be the biggest Red Sox fan I knew. Yeah, that stung. But it was still a great game by the Moose. That’s just how the Baseball Gods work sometimes. They’re a capricious lot.
The other memory comes at the very end. His last start in his last season. Which was, I’m almost certain, also the last season at the Old House.15 And in this, his last start, Moose finally got his 20th win. First time. Last time. It was poetic. But it was sliver-age poetry. It wasn’t Virgil. It was one of those guys who came after Virgil that nobody really cares about except people who are totally into Latin poetry. But it was still poetry and it was great. And the whole Stadium was chanting “Moooooose!!!” We were all happy for the guy. How could you not be? He’d given us so many great years of pitching. So many great stories. And in the end, that’s what baseball is about. It’s about the story. And if Mike Mussina’s story turns out not to be a Hall of Fame story, it’s still a story worth telling. And retelling.
- I don’t care because the standards by which some people are allowed into the hall and others kept out defies any kind of logic. Ty Cobb, racist, is in. Pete Rose, gambler, is not. Barry Bonds, homerun king and juicer is out. Old rich white dudes who kept black men out of the majors for decades are in. So I’m not particularly invested in whether or not ol’ Moose finds his way to Cooperstown one day. [↩]
- I did, however, look up how to spell ‘Mussina.’ #journalisticintegrity [↩]
- ’98 Yanks: Res ipsa loquitur. [↩]
- I think. As I said, I’m not fact checking dates. [↩]
- Though he somehow never won a Gold Glove, because, I assume, all people who vote on this award are assholes. I defy you to show me a more logical, lucid and well reasoned alternative. [↩]
- And so, after a lifetime of Mattingly and Tino playing first base, I got to watch this guy stumble around the bag with ten thumbs and two left feet. [↩]
- Or Pound Sterling, or whatever the Brits were paying their mercenaries in in the 18th century. (Also not researched for this piece, world currencies of the 18th century.) [↩]
- I think. Probably one of them was at least. Probably more than one. Because every pitcher is going to have a night like that. Well, not every pitcher. I don’t think Denny Neagle ever had a game like that for the Yanks. I mean, that guy was just awful. Him and his stupid train-whistle gag. Ugh. The point is, it must have happened at least a couple of times in order for me to feel like it happened all the time. [↩]
- Because in the myth version of this story, every time these two matched up, it was a day game. Because everybody knows all the best baseball happens during the day. Or nearly. On more which later. [↩]
- Which I’m sure he could have been. Because Derek Jeter can do anything he wants. For evidence of this, see the life of Derek Jeter. That’s not a book title. I mean, just look at the guy’s life. [↩]
- Or maybe one out. [↩]
- If you’re Joe Girardi, you look this up in your Magic Binder. But this was in the days before Magic Binders. [↩]
- Not to be confused with the biggest disaster of the year, which was starting Jeff Weaver in a World Series game. Or any game, really. [↩]
- Or possibly just a no-hitter, but either way, it was a big deal. [↩]
- And if it wasn’t, it should have been. [↩]