Publish date:

Mike Mussina receives call to the Baseball HOF his sixth year on the ballot

The major league career for Mike Mussina had him pitching for the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees, and has now led him to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

By Robert Grayson

Can you imagine a Hall of Fame pitcher, who had 536 career regular-season starts and 21 in the postseason, saying one of his greatest thrills in Major League Baseball was pitching in relief? Of course, that rare relief appearance came in the postseason, a seventh game in an American League Championship Series (ALCS), no less, while he played for the New York Yankees in a game against—Who else?—the Boston Red Sox.

Mike Mussina, who will enter baseball’s shrine this year, won his first seven starts in 2003 for the New York Yankees. It was the first time a Yankees starter went 7–0 to begin the season since “Bullet” Bob Turley accomplished that feat in 1958. Mussina went on to win 17 games during the 2003 season and helped lead the Bronx Bombers to their 39th American League pennant. But in that 2003 American League Championship Series, Moose etched his name into Yankees lore.

Image placeholder title

The talented right-hander, who established himself as a reliable starter since he broke into The Show with the Baltimore Orioles in 1991, had lost a couple of tough games to the Red Sox in the 2003 ALCS. Yet he remained ready to contribute in any way he could to the Yankees’ effort to win the hard-fought ALCS against the rival Bosox.

The series came down to a deciding seventh game, played at Yankee Stadium. The prize was the American League pennant and a trip to the World Series. The stakes couldn’t have been higher for either team in this bitter rivalry, but the Yankees didn’t want the Red Sox winning the American League Championship anywhere near the Bronx.

The starting pitchers for the all-important Game 7 were Roger Clemens for the Yankees and Pedro Martinez for Boston. Clemens had defeated Martinez in Game 3 of the series but Martinez always gave the Yankees batters fits at the plate.

The Red Sox got out to an early lead. Right fielder Trot Nixon came up with a man on first in the top of the second inning and homered off Clemens. Boston added another run that inning after catcher Jason Varitek doubled. He then scored when Yankees third baseman Enrique Wilson made a wild throw to first on a ground ball hit by Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon. A leadoff homer by Boston first baseman Kevin Millar in the top of the fourth inning made the score 4–0 Red Sox. Clemens then walked Nixon and, in a surprise move, Yankees manager Joe Torre got Mike Mussina up in the bullpen. The next batter, Red Sox third baseman Bill Mueller, singled, moving Nixon to third, and forced Torre’s hand. He lifted Clemens and called Mussina in from the pen.

“My heart was pounding out of my chest—what a feeling,” the veteran hurler recalled. With runners at the corners, Moose struck out Varitek and then got Damon to hit into a double play. It was the turning point of the game, as Mussina’s gritty pitching performance kept the Yankees in the game and reenergized them. Mussina then pitched two more scoreless innings, giving Yankees first baseman Jason Giambi a chance to hit a solo home run in the bottom of the fifth, making the score 4–1.

Image placeholder title

Torre felt Mussina had done enough, pitching three shutout innings, and put reliever Felix Heredia into the game in the top of the seventh. Heredia got the first two outs and then was replaced by Jeff Nelson, who got the third. In the bottom of the seventh inning, Giambi hit another solo blast off Martinez, pulling the Bombers closer, at 4–2.

The Yankees began to notice that Martinez was beginning to tire. But Red Sox manager Grady Little left his starter in the game. Nelson came out for the top of the eighth inning and, after retiring the leadoff hitter, was replaced by David Wells. Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz promptly hit a home run off Wells, making the score 5–2. Wells retired the next two batters to end the inning.

Then, in what is still considered a controversial move and argued about to this day, Little sent Martinez out to pitch the bottom of the eighth inning. The Yankees roared back against Martinez in that bottom of the eighth inning and, with a series of hits, tied the score and sent the game into extra innings. That set the stage for the Yankees’ Aaron Boone to hit one of baseball’s most dramatic walk-off home runs, in the bottom of the 11th inning, and send the Bronx Bombers to the World Series.

It’s generally agreed that without Mussina giving his exhilarating performance and keeping the Yankees in the game, all would have been lost. Not only did he stop the Red Sox rally, he buoyed the Yankees’ spirits, thrusting them right back into the game.

Moose said Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS is one of his fondest memories from his 18-year career (1991–2008) in the major leagues.

“Coming into the game in relief like that was just something I had never been asked to do before. It’s Game 7 of the ALCS and the place is packed. It’s Yankee Stadium and I have to jog in from the bullpen to the mound in the midst of the game. I don’t normally do that,” the right-handed starter said. “I usually walk in before everyone is there. That’s when I walk or jog to the mound from the dugout, not the bullpen, not in the middle of all the excitement. Everyone’s screaming and to get in there and be effective and get a strikeout and a double play to get out of the inning and give us a chance, and then to pitch another couple of innings and give us a chance to win—that was big.”

Image placeholder title

While Moose always wanted to win a World Championship, he never did, but says that relief appearance in the 2003 ALCS meant as much to him as winning a World Series ring. The Yankees lost the 2003 World Series in six games to the Florida Marlins. Mussina started Game 3 of the series and pitched seven strong innings, picking up the win in a 6–1 Yankees victory.

Moose was set to pitch Game 7 of the 2003 World Series, had there been one, but the Yankees went down to defeat in Game 6 by a 2–0 score, giving the Marlins the World Championship.

With 270 wins in his career, Mussina was considered a model of consistency throughout his playing days. He won 11 or more games in 17 of his 18 seasons in the bigs. He had 17 wins in a season twice (2001, 2003), 18 wins three times (1992, 1999, 2002), 19 wins twice (1995, 1996), and 20 wins once (2008). He amassed 2,813 strikeouts, pitched 3,562 2/3 innings and could field his position exceptionally well, winning seven Gold Gloves.

Despite Mussina’s striking stats, induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame was never a sure thing for the right-hander. Even this year, his sixth year on the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) ballot, there was some doubt as to whether he would receive enough votes. But the right-handed hurler from a small town in Pennsylvania was hopeful of one day making it into the shrine as a result of the way the vote was going for him the last few years.

He first appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2014.

“Honestly, at the beginning, the very first year, I’m just thankful that 20 percent of the writers felt that I deserved to be given a vote because if you watch the voting close enough, there are a lot of very, very good ballplayers who don’t make it past the first ballot,” he pointed out.

Image placeholder title

Players on the BBWAA ballot need to garner 5 percent of the vote to stay on the ballot from year to year. They need 75 percent of the vote to win election.

“So you need to get the votes that first year or you’re not even going to stay on the ballot,” he noted.

Then Mussina went up to 24.6 percent his second year.

“The third year it jumped quite a bit (to 43 percent). Now I’m thinking, ‘Wait a minute here. We are going in the right direction,’” the pitcher recalled. With voters starting to appreciate his 270 wins, all coming in an especially productive era for hitters, it started to look like Mussina was approaching immortality. Still he was wary of only having seven years left to pick up the support he needed.

Getting to 51.8 percent in his fourth year on the ballot and then 63.5 on his fifth year put Mussina ever so close to election. Even with those two big incremental jumps, Mussina thought picking up another 12 percent this year was “a lot to ask for.” Still he was optimistic that his support would increase some this year, but Mussina didn’t think he would “jump from 63 percent to 75 percent that quickly.” This year, he received 76.7 percent of the vote.

“So, I was caught a little bit off guard. But I’m honored and very proud,” Mussina said.

Mussina grew up in Montoursville, Pennsylvania. The small town is just six miles from Williamsport, the birthplace of Little League baseball. What better place for a future big leaguer to grow up? The new Hall of Famer still lives in Montoursville, and is head coach of the boys basketball team at Montoursville Area High School, where he graduated.

On the cold afternoon this past January when Mussina got the call that he had been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, he was just finishing up basketball practice. He was sworn to secrecy by HOF officials not to reveal the outcome of the vote until the official announcement was made later that evening. Of course, Mussina said, the whole town knew the vote was being announced that day. He quickly wrapped up basketball practice and, with his teenage son Peyton by his side, Mussina snuck out of the high school gym to avoid answering any questions about the vote.

“It was a little crazy until I could tell everyone and then it really got crazy,” he said. “I think I set a new record for text messages.”

As a kid, the future major league hurler was driven and had plenty of God-given talent. He practiced pitching tirelessly from the age of eight, when he started playing Little League baseball. He earned the nickname “Moose” as a Little Leaguer because of the first syllable of his last name. By 11 years old, Mussina recalled, he realized that he was throwing the baseball so hard it would hurt his father’s hand to play catch with him. Other kids his age didn’t experience that when playing catch with their dads and that made the youngster wonder if perhaps he had a special flair for the game.

Image placeholder title

At Montoursville Area High School, Mussina put together a dazzling scholastic career, compiling a 24–4 record with a 0.87 earned run average. He also played shortstop when he wasn’t pitching. But it was his exploits on the mound, including racking up strikeouts against his opponents, that earned the young hurler Pennsylvania Baseball Player of the Year honors in both his junior (1986) and senior (1987) years. He capped off his high school baseball career by leading Montoursville to a Pennsylvania High School State Championship.

An energetic athlete, Mussina could not sit idle during the baseball off-season and played both football and basketball while waiting for baseball season to come around again. He scored 1,382 points as a guard on the basketball team and saw plenty of action on the gridiron.

During the summer between his junior and senior years in high school, the impressive right-handed pitcher played on the U.S. Junior Olympic baseball team. In a tournament in Canada that summer of 1986, he struck out 16 members of the Cuban team on his way to a 1–0 victory.

That got major league scouts planning trips to Montoursville to watch Mussina in action closer to home. But he had made up his mind, long before the flurry of scouts descended on his hometown, that he wasn’t ready for a pro career and was going to college, even if he was drafted by a major league club while still in high school.

The Baltimore Orioles took a chance anyway and drafted Mussina in 1987, but, true to his word, the hurler went on to college. That turned out to be a good decision. Mussina attended Stanford University. In his freshman year on the Stanford baseball team in 1988, he helped the school win its second College World Series in a row. Even though he compiled a 9–4 record as a freshman, he found that college hitters could handle what he was throwing, as baffling as it was to high school batters. He started upping his game, adding pitches, developing more movement, and fine-tuning his hurling skills, he said. He also taught himself how to throw a very tricky knuckle-curve.

Meanwhile, he was also studying economics, just in case major league scouts didn’t come calling again. An injury in his sophomore year limited the amount of action Mussina saw that season, but he was back to full strength as a junior and won 14 games. He had an ERA of 0.99 and after his junior year in college—in 1990—was drafted once again by Baltimore. This time he was ready for the pros and answered the call.

Image placeholder title

Mussina aggressively moved through the Orioles’ minor league system, having ironed out some of the flaws in his youthful pitching style while in college. He began his pro career in July 1990 just a few weeks after the spring college semester ended.

Mussina’s minor league career got off to a rocky start.

“On my first road trip, the bus ran over my luggage. That’s how my minor league career started,” he said with a smile.

He debuted in Double-A ball in the Eastern League with the Hagerstown Suns. His first start was officially on July 19, 1990. He actually made a start on July 14, but that game was rained out after two innings and didn’t count.

“It rained so hard that day, they couldn’t even get the tarp on the field,” he remembered.

Interestingly that rainout took place in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where the Suns were visiting the Williamsport Bills, a Seattle Mariners farm team at the time. Run-over luggage, torrential rains—it’s all part of minor league ball. But it does get better.

In that July 19 start against the Canton Indians, Mussina pitched four scoreless innings giving up only two hits, striking out four and issuing no walks. He got a no decision as the Suns went on to lose the contest 3–0 after Mussina left the game. Overall, in seven starts with Hagerstown, the 21-year-old Mussina was 3–0 with a 1.49 ERA. That earned him a promotion to the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings in late August, as the team was making a playoff run.

He had just enough time to pitch 13 1/3 innings at the end of the 1990 Triple-A season, getting no decisions but recording a 1.35 ERA. In the 1990 International League postseason, the up-and-coming hurler started two games, but again didn’t figure in a decision. Rochester ended up being the International League’s top team in 1990, winning the Governor’s Cup. But then the Red Wings lost the 1990 Triple-A Classic—a series between the best team in the International League and the American Association—to the Omaha Royals 4 games to 1.

For Mussina, the adjustments at every level of baseball were basically the same.

“In college, there are more guys in the lineup who can hurt you than in high school,” he said. “In Triple-A there are more guys who can hurt you than in Double-A. You have to make fewer mistakes. You have to concentrate more.”

In 1991, he returned to the Rochester Red Wings and continued his rapid rise through the minors. The masterful hurler added the International League Pitcher of the Year Award to his resumé in 1991, going 10–4 for the Red Wings with a 2.87 ERA. The Orioles called him up to the big club on July 31.

Early on, Mussina became known in the majors for his pinpoint control and icy demeanor on the mound. At 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, the right-hander did not cut an imposing figure on the mound, but he knew how to get hitters out, and that reputation built over the years. When Mussina took to the hill, opposing batters recognized that it was going to be a tough day at the office.

He used six pitches effectively during his career. He had a change-up, a hard knuckle-curve and a slow curve to go along with three types of fastballs—a cutter, a two-seam fastball and a four-seam fastball. His fastballs all moved in different ways. For example, his cut fastball broke into left-handers and away from right-handers.

He was always known for keeping the batter off-balance and for outthinking hitters. He challenged hitters by being unpredictable and kept them guessing. The now-50-year-old former hurler could make the adjustments he needed, season after season, to consistently win.

His first taste of Major League Baseball competition in 1991 came on August 4, when he gave up only four hits in 7 2/3 innings of work in a game against the Chicago White Sox. But one of those hits was a home run to Pale Hose slugger Frank Thomas. That cost Mussina the game. He lost 1–0. He would finish the season 4–5 with a 2.87 ERA in 12 starts.

He started the 1992 season with Baltimore and won 18 games with a 2.54 ERA and made the American League All-Star team. He also finished fourth in the league’s Cy Young voting (Oakland’s Dennis Eckersley won the award that year). Mussina ended up playing 10 years with the Orioles (1991–2000) and had a number of sensational seasons, winning some extremely well-pitched games and anchoring the Baltimore pitching staff.

In the strike-shortened 1995 season, when only 144 games were played, Mussina still managed to win 19 games. When the Hall of Famer won 18 games in 1999, he finished second in the Cy Young voting to Pedro Martinez, who won 23 that year. In his decade with the Birds, Mussina finished in the top 10 for the Cy Young Award seven times, and he made the American League All-Star team five times (1992–1994, 1997, 1999). Moose won 147 games for the O’s, struck out 1,535 batters, and pitched 2,009 2/3 innings with a 3.53 ERA.

Image placeholder title

In 1997, he had a spectacular postseason. Mussina outdueled Seattle Mariners pitching great Randy Johnson twice—once in Game 1 and then again in Game 4—to give the Birds a 3–1 American League Division Series victory. Then in the 1997 ALCS, against the Cleveland Indians, the O’s stalwart went seven innings in Game 3, striking out 15 and giving up only one run. But the Orioles eventually lost the well-pitched game in 12 innings 2–1. Mussina ended up with a no-decision.

He came back on three days’ rest to throw eight scoreless innings in Game 6, but once again the Orioles’ bats were listless. Mussina left the game after eight innings with the score 0–0. The Birds lost in 11 innings 1–0, and lost the series 4 games to 2.

A free agent after the 2000 season, the star right-hander had many suitors. One of them was the New York Yankees. Mussina was not enamored of the big city, preferring a small town. Yankees manager Joe Torre, who had heard rumors about Mussina’s concerns, called Mussina and talked to him about some open spaces and quiet locales in the suburbs surrounding New York City. Mussina would later say the call was one of the major factors in his decision to don the pinstripes.

Unlike many big stars who often have an adjustment period when moving from one team to another after free agency, Mussina hit the ground running in the Big Apple. He won his first start for the Bronx Bombers on April 5, 2001. He went 7 2/3 innings to lead the Yankees to a 1–0 win over the Kansas City Royals.

With the Yankees, Mussina continued to add to his accomplishments as a major league pitcher and reached some impressive milestones. He won his 200th game on April 11, 2004, beating the White Sox 5–4. He went on to pick up another 50 wins, notching his 250th career win on Sept. 23, 2007, when he defeated the Toronto Blue Jays 7–5. That put Mussina in position to reach 270 wins the next season. He got into two World Series with New York (2001 and 2003). Even though he had made it to the postseason with the Orioles twice (1996 and 1997), the team never got into the Fall Classic.

In 2001, Mussina pitched in a historic game in the ALDS as the Yankees worked their way through the postseason to the World Series. The Yankees lost the first two games of the 2001 ALDS to a surprising Oakland A’s team and were on the verge of elimination when Mussina got the call to pitch Game 3.

Moose threw seven scoreless innings, allowing only four hits and one walk. Mussina was protecting a one-run Yankees lead, in the top of the seventh inning, when Jeremy Giambi singled with two out. The next batter, Terrence Long, lined a pitch down the right-field line. Outfielder Shane Spencer raced over and grabbed the bouncing ball, but overthrew two cutoff men. However, shortstop Derek Jeter had made his way to foul territory along the first-base line near home plate. He fielded the errant throw and made a backhanded flip to catcher Jorge Posada, who tagged out the hard-running Giambi at the plate to end the inning. Mussina can only shake his head in amazement when thinking about the play that eventually led to the Yankees’ 1–0 victory.

The Bronx Bombers came back to win the next two games of that ALDS on their way to the 2001 ALCS against the Seattle Mariners. Mussina won Game 3 of the 2001 ALCS as the Yankees defeated the Mariners in that series 4 games to 1.

In the 2001 World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Moose had a rough outing in Game 1, losing to Curt Schilling. But he came back in Game 5, whiffing 10 batters in eight strong innings. The Yankees won the game 3–2 in 12 innings, but Moose was not involved in the decision. The Diamondbacks defeated the Bronx Bombers in the series 4 games to 3.

There were many more thrills ahead for Mussina as a Yankee, including finally winning 20 games in a season in 2008. That victory came on the last day of the season, and proved to be the last start of Mussina’s career. The Yankees were in Boston at Fenway Park on September 28, 2008.

“We were rained out the day before and scheduled to play a day-night doubleheader,” Mussina recalled.

Moose said there was a heavy cloud ceiling and he didn’t know if they would even be able to play two games that day.

“Joe Girardi (the Yankees manager) asked me which game I wanted to pitch. I thought, ‘Well, we may only be able to get one in, so I’d better pitch the first one.’ I pitched well and won my 20th game, the only time I won 20, and it came on the last day of the season and the last day of my career. It’s one of my most memorable moments as a Yankee,” the Hall of Famer said.

Image placeholder title

The Yankees won that game 6–2 and did play the nightcap, but lost that second game 4–3 in 10 innings. In total, Mussina won 123 games, with a 3.88 ERA, during his career with the Yankees.

At the end of the 2008 season, Mussina had a decision to make. He always wanted to leave the game on top and what represents being at the top of your game more then winning 20 games at age 39? But then there was that gnawing question about staying around and trying to reach that pinnacle of 300 wins. Physically, Moose felt good and thought he could return for one more season at age 40. But would it be one more season? He could not win the 30 games he needed to get to 300 wins in one season. Then, he thought, would he end up just hanging around for a few more years, trying to scratch out victories to get 300 and perhaps dilute his career in the process?

After his 20-win season, Mussina felt he could retire on his own terms and took the opportunity.

“I think I retired from baseball at the right time for me and my family,” he said.

Quiet and reserved, Mussina combined his love for baseball and all sports with a passion for crossword puzzles, especially the challenging ones in the New York Times. During downtimes at the ballpark, he zealously worked on the crosswords and was such a well-known fan of the puzzles that he appeared in a noteworthy documentary about crossword puzzles, called Wordplay (2006). Other crossword-puzzle aficionados in the public eye who appeared in the film included former president Bill Clinton, former senator Bob Dole, comedian Jon Stewart and documentarian Ken Burns.

With so many highlights during his career as both an Oriole and a Yankee, it was easy to see why Mussina couldn’t decide which logo should appear on his cap on the plaque in Cooperstown that will forever tout his accomplishments. The final decision was to have no logo on the cap.

“I almost split my career down the middle between the two organizations. I couldn’t sit here and choose between one or the other,” he said. “Both the Yankees and the Orioles were instrumental in my reaching Cooperstown. I am proud to have played for these great organizations, in front of the tremendous fans in Baltimore and New York, and I am honored to have the opportunity to represent both of them in the Hall of Fame.”

Throughout his career, Mussina had brushes with perfection. Moose pitched several near-perfect games. With the Orioles in 1997, he retired the first 25 Cleveland Indians he faced in a game on May 30, before Sandy Alomar Jr. got a single with one out in the ninth. Moose then struck out the last two batters he faced for a one-hit 3–0 victory.

The next season, on August 4, Mussina mowed down the first 23 Detroit Tigers batters he faced before giving up a double to Frank Catalanotto with two out in the eighth inning. He then retired the side. The Tigers’ Deivi Cruz got a single against Mussina with one out in the ninth, but then Moose got the next two Detroit batters out to win the game 4–0.

But the closest the Pennsylvania native ever got to a perfect game came when he was with the Yankees. It happened on Sept. 2, 2001, at Fenway Park, and it doesn’t come much closer than this. Mussina was pitching against former Yankee David Cone, who was winding up his major league career by playing a few final seasons with the Red Sox. Moose was breezing through the Red Sox lineup. He was extremely sharp that game, needing only 70 pitches through the first six innings to close down the Red Sox, and that included striking out 11 batters.

Cone, for his part, gave up only two hits to the Yankees in the first six innings. The Bombers had a chance to score in the seventh inning, but failed to push a run across.

Moose kept going. Batter after batter, the Red Sox went down in frustration. Finally, in the top of the ninth inning, the Yankees broke through and scored a run. It was 1–0 and Mussina was going out for the bottom of the ninth with a perfect game intact. Boston’s Shea Hillenbrand led off the bottom of the ninth with a ground ball wide of first. Mussina admits that he thought the perfect game was lost at that point. Yankees first baseman Clay Bellinger dove out and speared the ball, then flipped to Moose, covering first, and got the out on a close play.

“I thought that was it. We got the play that could have ruined the perfect game and we made it,” Mussina said.

But he didn’t let up. He struck out the next batter, Lou Merloni, and was still throwing hard. Then the Red Sox sent in Carl Everett to pinch-hit for catcher Joe Oliver. Mussina had struck out Everett four times in a game earlier in the season. Each time it was on high fastballs. He knew how to get Everett out.

Mussina jumped ahead in the count, two strikes, no balls. He’s one strike away from a perfect game and throws the high fastball. Everett reaches out and dumps the pitch into left center for a hit. The perfect game, the no-hitter, lost. Like the pro he always was, Mussina collected himself and got the next batter, Trot Nixon, to ground out to give the Yankees the victory.

“Sure, it was disappointing. But now when you look back at it, you can realize and appreciate what a great game it was,” Mussina said. “My thought process during the game was more on what Coney was doing than on me, and that helped me get through the game. We weren’t scoring. I thought I was going to throw a no-hitter but it wasn’t going to matter anyway because I was going to come out of the game before it was decided and not be involved in the decision.”

In other words, he muses, an asterisk for pitching nine innings of perfect or no-hit baseball with nothing to show for it.

“So I was so focused on Coney I wasn’t thinking about a perfect game until after we scored,” he said.

“Throughout my career I had a lot of almosts. I almost pitched a perfect game. I almost pitched a no-hitter. I almost won a Cy Young Award. I almost won a World Series and, until now, I almost made it to the Hall of Fame. Now that I’m in the Hall of Fame, I can live with those other almosts.” 

Robert Grayson is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at graydrew18@aol.com.