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Thursday, June 21, 2018

Mussina Hung ’em Up at the Perfect Time

On the mound, Mike Mussina didn’t show much emotion. He never had the fire or flare of a superstar, and never struck most Yankee fans as the type of stopper they expected to have for a guy making $19 mil a year in the final seasons of his then-monster contract. Perhaps it’s the money that kept the fans from realizing what Mussina was really all about — a consistent dose of high-level pitching that almost always gave his team a chance to win.

Mussina did his best work with the Orioles for the most part, which allowed him to make a killing upon signing with the Yanks. He never did take his game to the next level in NYC and win a Cy Young, but he did remain what he had been — a guy who tossed tons of innings at a 3.50 ERA level in the AL East — not too damn shabby. Things started to go down hill in ’04 and ’05 for Moose before he bounced back in ’06 only to struggle once again in ’07. In retrospect, he was by that point past his prime and already in the downside of his career. That’s what makes ’08 such a special season for the Moose.

Things couldn’t have possibly gone more wrong for Mussina in ’07. He went on the DL early in the season and never really seemed comfortable. He was afraid to attack the strike zone fearing that his pitches (much slower than when he was in his prime) would get crushed and he became ineffective. He was so bad that each start was worse than the next and he got demoted to the bullpen. Playing in front of the New York media and with the demanding Yankee fans made the situation about as bad as it could be; this was one of the top pitchers in the game hitting his absolute low point.

Funny enough though, at the age of 39, Mussina completely bounced back this year to win 20 games for the first time in his career and become the only reliable starter the Yankees had. He gave them exactly what they paid for back when they signed him as a free agent — an ace on the staff. Mussina also grabbed that elusive 20th win for the first time in his career (in ’94 and ’95 he likely would have reached the mark if it weren’t for the strike) to validate himself in the eyes of the short-sided number-crowd. He rebounded from his worst year to one of his best and walked out on the game on top. Best part to me is that Mussina knew all along that this would be his last season, yet he kept it to himself so as not to be a distraction for the team. I really admire and respect that. Furthermore, I love the fact that Mussina more or less spit in the face of the number-geeks who say 300 wins is the magical number. Rather than hang on too long to try and reach just an arbitrary number, he knows it’s time to call it quits before he really embarrasses himself like ’07 again and has everyone calling for his head. He walked out on his terms, on top, his last impression on the game as being the ace of a staff winning 20 games.

300 wins or not, Mike Mussina is definitely a Hall of Famer. He’s a class act, embodies the spirit of the game, and pitched at a high level for a longer period of time than almost anyone in his generation — the most offensive-sided eras in baseball history. While he never dominated the game quite like Randy Johnson or Pedro Martinez in the AL, he was an excellent starter for the beginning part of his career and was a very good, reliable pitcher after that. And if you don’t see the dominance there and want some signature moments, I advise you to check out the ’97 ALDS when Moose twice beat Randy Johnson, the ’97 ALCS when he twice shut down one the best lineups in the history of the game — the Indians, Game 7 of the ALCS in ’03 against the Red Sox, and Game 3 of the ’03 World Series where he beat Josh Beckett. I’m extremely pleased that Mike Mussina is leaving the game on top, sending us away with positive memories of his career. I only wish that more star players would follow his lead.

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