Pretty much anything that begins, “When you look up the word [blank] in the Oxford English Dictionary … ”—whether it’s a blog post or a speech or a debate club performance or whatever—it is, with near-100% probability, guaranteed to suck. I fell into that trap recently, thinking about Mike Mussina’s ten seasons as an Oriole with the word nostalgia bobbing around in my head. I kept thinking about my nostalgia for Mussina and the great Orioles teams of the ‘90s, and how it’s funny that nostalgia literally comes from pain (from the Greek nostos, “a return home,” and algia, “pain”), because when I think about Moose’s career, I feel nostalgia and, frankly, a little pain.
Pain because Mussina left to join the New York Yankees in 2000, after Orioles ownership “took a glacial approach” to tendering their five-time All-Star a contract. Pain because, after leaving Baltimore, Moose pitched eight seasons with the Yankees, going to the playoffs in seven and putting up a winning record in all. Pain because Moose decided to enter the Hall of Fame in 2019 wearing a blank hat on his plaque. “For the longest time when I was in Baltimore, I said I’d never play in New York,” said Mussina in his Cooperstown speech. “I’m a small-town boy and that place was too much for me. Obviously, I changed my mind, mostly because Joe Torre called me.”
Pain, less selfishly, because Mussina never won a World Series or a Cy Young Award. He didn’t get 300 wins; in fact, he retired suddenly in 2008 with 270 after racking up 20 wins in a season for the first time as a 39-year-old. He never threw a perfect game, getting excruciatingly close five times. The list of “near-misses” in Mussina’s career, writes Joe Posnanski, who ranks him No. 99 on his Baseball 100 list, “is long and legendary and, when taken all together, strangely touching. There’s a melancholy aura about Mussina’s career.” The day after Mussina retired, the New York Daily News, of all papers, ran a piece on his Hall of Fame chances entitled, “Coopers-Frown.”
Mussina never had the flash, the shocking stuff, or the brute statistical dominance of contemporaries like Randy Johnson, Pedro Martínez, and Mariano Rivera. What he had instead was the ability to turn pitching into an art form. Always cerebral, his finesse earned him comparisons to Jim Palmer even as a young draftee out of Stanford. According to a 1994 Sports Illustrated profile, Mussina decided during a game that the batter was vulnerable to a cut fastball. Just one problem: Mussina didn’t have a cut fastball. No matter. Fiddling with his grip on the mound, the righty “broke off a nasty cutter,” to the astonishment of his catcher, Chris Hoiles. After the inning Hoiles told Mussina, “Well, I guess if you’re going to use that pitch, we ought to have a sign for it.”
Several of Mussina’s starts stand out as works of art in themselves. One is his May 30, 1997 brush with perfection, which the Sun’s Bob Blubaugh calls “the best game I’ve ever seen.” Mussina retired 25 Cleveland Indians in a row before Sandy Alomar Jr. laced a one-out single over Cal Ripken Jr.’s head in the ninth inning to spoil the perfect game. In Game 4 of the 1997 ALDS against Seattle, a game the Washington Post dubbed one of Camden Yards’ most memorable moments, Moose outdueled “The Big Unit” himself, spearing line drives and striking out Joey Cora, Ken Griffey, Jr., and A-Rod all in a row. (Full game available here: you’re welcome.) A week later, Mussina turned in one of the greatest pitching performances in postseason history in Game 3 of the ALCS, carving his way through the likes of Manny Ramirez, David Justice, and Jim Thome en route to an LCS-record 15 strikeouts. (Somehow, even this triumph was sad, as Baltimore lost the game when closer Randy Myers let Marquis Grissom steal home in the twelfth inning. Still. Look at those dejected Cleveland faces as they whiff, whiff, and whiff again. If that’s not dominance, I don’t know what is.)
The other distinctive mark of Mussina’s game was a relentless perfectionism that kept him playing at the sport’s highest levels over his whole career. Moose did the little things well, holding runners, brilliantly fielding his position (his seven Gold Gloves are tied for fifth-best among pitchers), and rarely walking batters. His close-to-3,000 career strikeouts came on a 3.58 strikeout/walk ratio, 29th all-time. Moose made adjustments to his stuff as he got older, adding a splitter and a curveball to his arsenal, experimenting with new arm angles, and famously changing his change-up grip at the suggestion of Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, a move considered a main factor for his dazzling final season: a 20-9 record and 3.37 ERA in a league-leading 34 starts in 2008. Mussina’s control actually got better as he aged, his five best walk rates coming in his last nine seasons, evidence that, even at the time he retired, he was still honing his craft.
Mussina only won 20 games once, but this feels like an odd technicality: in 1992, he went 18-5 with eight additional quality starts that ended in a loss or no-decision. In the strike-shortened 1994 season, he finished 16-5, then went 19-9 in a 144-game season in 1995. In 1996, a season he considered one of his worst, he won 19 games, leaving his last start in the eighth inning with a 2-1 lead that the bullpen blew. (What personal grudge Armando Benítez had against Mike Mussina, I will never know.) Mussina won 10 games or more in a season seventeen times, a feat only 11 other pitchers ever achieved. He finished in the Top-6 for the Cy Young Award nine times. His career W-L record was 270-153, good for a stellar .638 winning percentage during the worst time in history to be a pitcher, the Steroid Era.
“Brilliant, a bit unlucky and an aversion to fame all thrown together into one stew,” sums up Posnanski. “[Jim] Palmer, minus the Cy Youngs, World Series rings and underwear endorsements,” concludes Bob Blubaugh. Genius, a complete absence of flashiness, and plenty of near-misses, I’d add.
Except for the one big one. In his 2019 Cooperstown induction speech, the notoriously soft-spoken Mussina summed up matters well: “I was never fortunate enough to win a Cy Young Award or be a World Series champion. I didn’t win 300 games or strike out 3,000 batters. And while my opportunities for those achievements are in the past, today I get to be part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame . . . Maybe I was saving up from all those almost achievements for one last push, and this time I made it.”