The inevitable departure of Mike Mussina

Seen here in the 1997 playoffs, Mike Mussina could have been a free agent after this if he didn't take a team-friendly contract. Photo credit: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images Sport

One of the themes we hope to explore in our ongoing look back at the 1997 season is nostalgia for that last good year, reminding ourselves of what it was like to live through that wire-to-wire season. Assuming, of course, you were alive and old enough to remember it. If you are as old now as I was in the 1997 season, you weren't even alive the last time the Orioles were good.

Whenever I think about this fact, I grow sad. A whole generation of kids has only known bad baseball in their home town. The O's are probably losing the border places. Nats hats cropping up in Columbia, Phillies in York County, PA. Did it have to be this way? Many of my contributions to the series will be looking through press accounts of the day, trying to see if the reporters were - whether by keen insight or luck - presaging the decade and a half of doom that still engulfs us.

My suspicion is that there is enough on the record to show that the fall from grace to come was an inevitability, and I will try to explore this throughout the current season. With the recent announcement that Mike Mussina will be inducted into the Orioles Hall of Fame, the circumstances of his departure to the Yankees, and residual fan anger, were brought back to light. Mike Mussina's exit via free agency was inevitable, not so much because he wanted to leave as because the Orioles did not want him. The Orioles saw to that as far back as that 1997 wire-to-wire season.

Thinking back to 1997 is looking back on a landscape so different it may as well be alien. The top song on the top 40 chart for April was R. Kelly's "I Believe I Can Fly" - which if you're around my age you probably still associate with the November 1996 release, Space Jam; No Doubt's "Don't Speak" and "Song 2" by Blur were also in the top 10, and down at #38 was "Hypnotize" by the Notorious BIG, whom had just been killed on March 9. The #1 grossing movie in the country the weekend prior to Opening Day was Liar Liar, starring Jim Carrey, with Selena and the special edition re-release of Return of the Jedi also in the top 5. If you gazed into the heavens, you saw the Hale-Bopp comet - the appearance of which led to the mass suicide of the Heaven's Gate cult in California.

If you had Internet access in your home, it was probably dial-up, maybe thanks to an AOL 500 free hours CD. You might get to watch them on television, if you got HTS, where you'd hear Michael Reghi, in his first season, along with Mike Flanagan or Jim Palmer. If you listened on the radio, you might still hear the legendary Chuck Thompson now and again, but more likely you heard Jim Hunter - the replacement for Jon Miller - and Fred Manfra. So if you were following the Orioles, you were probably reading The Sun.

1997 was the heyday for the Angelos-era O's, and it may well have been for Baltimore's newspaper also. Sun baseball writers included current national baseball writers Ken Rosenthal of Fox and Buster Olney of ESPN. John Eisenberg was still at the paper. Roch Kubatko was the new guy, and Peter Schmuck wrote actual articles, not columns full of bad jokes. These guys were your objective Orioles coverage, and since there were that many of them, they could cover angles beyond just game stories, injury news and roster rumors. What were they saying through spring training? We've marveled at the surface of this time capsule. Let's look at what's inside.

One of the ongoing stories of the spring of 1997 was contract drama. All three of Cal Ripken Jr., Brady Anderson and Mike Mussina were entering the final year of existing contracts. Anderson was already 33, and at the end of the season he would become a free agent. The Orioles then gave him a 5-year contract worth about $30 million. He was released prior to the final year of the contract.

Cal, age 36, would settle his contract prior to the regular season, getting about $6.4 million a year until he retired after the 2001 season.

That leaves Mussina, who was 28 in 1997, and his story was the one that got the most press. In a Sun story from March 23, Schmuck talked to Jim Palmer, who asked, "What are the Orioles waiting for?" Referring to Camden Yards,

"It's a wonderful place to broadcast because every fly ball is a potential home run. It's a tough place to pitch. I remember Sterling Hitchcock saying, 'They ought to bomb this place' and Alex Fernandez told me, 'This place is a joke.' Mike wants to sign on.

The story notes that Fernandez had signed a 5 year, $35 million contract with the Marlins, setting the market for talented young pitchers at $7 million per year. Mussina was asking for a 4-year deal from the Orioles worth $28 million; the Orioles did not even initially offer three years, dallying with a third year on a vesting option.

Rosenthal also wrote about Mussina, a March 25 story headlined, "O's failing history class with Mussina." The history that Rosenthal referred to included an anecdote from 1979, when the Angels failed to re-sign Nolan Ryan after Ryan posted a 16-14 record. Then-GM Buzzie Bavasi (father of Bill, of Bedard trade fame) is reported to have said, "We'll just sign two 8-7 pitchers." The explicit message from Rosenthal was that letting Mussina escape would be the Orioles making the same mistake.

Though this would not ultimately happen until following the 2000 season, things looked to be headed that way in the spring of 1997. Rosenthal was left wondering why:

So, what's the Orioles' problem? The most logical explanation is that owner Peter Angelos apparently is fed up with the game's economics, and is determined to reverse the trend on salary growth. Of course, he'd be doing precisely that by signing Mussina below market value.

This quote is hilarious when you consider that the answer to the trivia question, "What was the last team in baseball other than the Yankees to lead the league in payroll?" is the 1998 Orioles. But it seems in 1997 Angelos was driving a hard bargain, pleading poverty with anyone who would listen. The O's raised ticket prices by about 19% from 1996 to 1997, with Angelos claiming that the Orioles lost $5 million in that wild card season. Then, as now, Angelos declined to comment for the Sun's story.

Somehow, the Orioles found money for the twilight of Cal's career, and they found money for Anderson, perhaps because, as Rosenthal noted, "there's no one in the farm system to replace him," but there was no money to secure the prime years of a great pitcher. Mussina ultimately would take that below-market deal, getting paid less than $7 million a year from 1998 to 2000. Maybe this sort of thing is where the notion that Angelos is a cheap owner originates.

It is clear that the Orioles organization did not appropriately value Mussina, neither in 1997, when it took so long for the team to agree to a below-market extension - and even then, it was Mussina who budged more than the Orioles - and certainly not in the 2000 season, when it was so apparent he would be leaving that the O's tried to trade Mussina at the July 31 deadline.

Though he took the team-friendly contract in 1997, it seems clear that was more out of a desire for stability than anything. Three years later, when the Yankees came in with 6 years and $88.5 million, after the Orioles had refused to go higher than 5 years and $60 million, when the Yankees had Joe Torre calling Mussina a week after the World Series ended, when the Yankees gave his wife a box of roses and gave presents for his kids, when Yankees players were calling every day to woo Mussina, is it any wonder he left? The seeds of that departure were sown in the hard line drawn by the Orioles in those 1997 negotiations. We just didn't know it at the time.

Mussina had a 19-11 record in 1996. Perhaps the Orioles felt they could go out and sign two 10-5 pitchers and they would be even up. Perhaps Angelos really was trying to make a stand on player salaries - although, again, why did he lead the league in payroll the next year? Certainly, Angelos' name should not have even been in the process; he should have just let Pat Gillick and Davey Johnson run the team. We know he did not do this, and that is surely part of what led to the disastrous fall. Much like Bavasi's Angels in the 80s with Nolan Ryan, the Orioles have yet to replace Mussina, though they have now had more than a decade to do so.

As the 2012 season progresses, I will be looking for more stories from the day that showed signs of rotten cracks in the foundation, even if at the time we were too busy enjoying the wire-to-wire AL East run, as well we should have been. Sadly, the inevitable departure of Mike Mussina was only the beginning.

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