By Sweeny Murti
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This is a stressful time for Mike Mussina. And it actually has nothing to do with the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In fact, when I ask him about the vote this week he confesses that he didn’t even know when it was being announced.
“I know it’s this month, that’s all I know,” Mussina said.
As head basketball coach at Montoursville High School in Pennsylvania, the 270-game winner has more anxiety about his team’s 2-5 start than seeing if he will move closer to the 75 percent balloting mark needed for election to Cooperstown. Mussina saw a significant gain a year ago when he garnered 43 percent and has momentum that could get him there in the next couple years.
The numbers stack up pretty well for Mussina. No, he didn’t reach 300 wins and he didn’t win Cy Young Awards, but he finished his career with a .638 winning percentage over 18 major league seasons with the Orioles and Yankees.
And the advanced numbers make him stand out as well.
Mussina’s 82.7 WAR (baseball-reference) is 24th all-time for pitchers. Of the 23 ahead of him, only Roger Clemens is not in the Hall yet. And he, of course, would be if not for his performance-enhancing drug connections.
With an ERA-plus of 123, Mussina ranks higher than Don Drysdale, Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton, and several other Hall of Famers.
That 2-5 record, though. That’s the number nagging Mussina, now in his fourth year as the varsity boys coach at his alma mater. He said the team has given him a few more grays this last month and recounted off the top of his head that his Warriors have lost five games by a total of 23 points, including two in overtime.
“We’re like three minutes of composure, of maturity, of patience from being 7-0,” Mussina said. “And we’re not, we’re 2-5. We haven’t had many breaks go our way, but that’s the way it works. It’s sports.”
Mussina’s son, Brycen, is a senior on the team. Besides coaching him in basketball, the five-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove winner spent the entire fall worrying about where his son will go to college next year.
“So, to ask me if I’m worried about what’s going on in the Hall of Fame vote, no … because that’s not the most important thing to me right now,” Mussina said.
That’s not to say Mussina takes the matter lightly or wouldn’t consider it an incredible honor to be elected. He just doesn’t live in the baseball world anymore. In fact, he doesn’t live anywhere near it, as he moved back to his rural Pennsylvania home after his final season in 2008 and has made only a handful of appearances at big league games since. He follows Brycen, 18, and his youngest son, Peyton, who turns 14 next week, through the school year from month to month and sport to sport. Before you know it, it’s January again and someone like me brings up the Hall of Fame question.
“I had a good vote last year and hopefully that trend will continue that the vote will still be favorable for me and we’ll see what happens this month,” Mussina said.
He has been on the ballot for only four years now. He still has six more years until he reaches the limit, so there are no pressing feelings about getting in, yet.
“I haven’t been a Hall of Famer till now and if I’m not a Hall of Famer this year nothing’s really changed except that maybe I’ll get a little closer to being in, possibly,” Mussina said.
During his first three years on the ballot, five starting pitchers — Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Randy Johnson, and Pedro Martinez — were elected in front of him. Glavine, Maddux, and Johnson all reached 300 wins, while Smoltz and Martinez collected World Series rings and Cy Young Awards.
The crowded ballot now eased of elite starting pitchers, Mussina’s candidacy can come into a bit more focus.
“I feel extremely fortunate,” Mussina said. “I pitched in an era where there were a lot of good pitchers who lasted a long time. Not just good pitchers for eight or 10 years, these guys were good pitchers for 18 or 20 years. And I feel fortunate that I was able to play with them and compete with them and have the success — or near the success — they had.”
The changing role of the starting pitcher could make 300 wins a near impossible feat in the future. There are only two active pitchers with over 200 wins — Bartolo Colon with 233 and CC Sabathia with 223. Justin Verlander (173), Zack Greinke (155), and Felix Hernandez (154) are all over 30 years of age. And there are only three pitchers under 30 with more than 100 wins –Clayton Kershaw (126), Rick Porcello (107), and Madison Bumgarner (100).
“I got to win 270 games and I felt tremendously fortunate to be able to do that,” Mussina said. “I don’t know when the next 270-game winner is going to be. It’s not easy.”
Starting pitchers throw harder than ever, harder than Mussina ever did for sure. They also throw fewer innings and rely more on relief pitchers. That evolution, Mussina believes, has devalued the win to a degree, but shouldn’t devalue a career’s worth.
“These guys today are unbelievable athletes with unbelievable arms, but it’s different now,” Mussina said. “If you’re only going to pitch five or six innings as a starter you’re going to lose opportunities to win games. So maybe wins aren’t as valuable on a night-by-night, game-by-game basis. But there’s just something to be said for someone that got to go out there for 16 or 18 or 20 years and won the team 15 games a year for all that time.”
I needed my calculator to confirm what Mussina likely already knew — 270 wins divided by 18 years equals exactly 15 wins per year.
Not having any Cy Young Awards, World Series rings, or no-hitters has held back his candidacy too, but Mussina believes — correctly — that those are things that are largely out of his individual control. He came close many times. He was one Mariano Rivera save from a ring in 2001, and one strike away from a perfect game that same year, broken up by Boston’s Carl Everett at Fenway Park.
Mussina used to joke that the title of his autobiography would be “Almost.” When I remind him of that, he chuckled, but made it clear that he didn’t leave behind any regrets.
“I would never want to say I wish I would have gotten that perfect game, but then I only pitched 11 seasons,” Mussina said. “To play for 18 years and win 270 games is much more satisfying as I sit here at 48 years old. I would never have traded what I was able to do for one of those things to take away the ‘almost’ part. There’s a lot of stuff I did accomplish that was more than ‘almost.’ There just happen to be a handful of things that I didn’t quite get to do and that’s okay. You can’t have everything.”
That’s a nice round number that he keeps bringing up, 270. Mussina checked off one “almost” when he finally won 20 games in is last season to get there. He knew his luck of being injury-free could run out sooner or later, so there was no need to continue and pad the win total that might have made him an automatic choice.
His is an unusual case for election because he didn’t hit magic numbers or pile up hardware for the mantle. But on its total value his career stands pretty tall, and as Mussina puts it, “If you’re going to sit around and wait for the guy to win 300 or win three Cy Young Awards or whatever formula you use, you may not put in very many starting pitchers ever again.”
After 30 minutes on the phone, Mussina admitted some of his stress had been alleviated because on New Year’s Eve Brycen, who was named to the All-State football team in Pennsylvania, received an offer to play quarterback next fall at Lafayette for its new head coach, John Garrett, whose brother, Jason, is the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Mussina and his family will be able to drive to nearly every one of Brycen’s Patriot League games for the next four years.
Of course, there are more gray hairs coming as he continues coaching basketball with Peyton on his way to high school next year. And Mussina also helps coach the Montoursville baseball team.
I finally told him that the voting will be announced Jan. 18 and he made a mental note of it. Before I hung up, I said “Good luck.”
And he probably thought I was talking about his 2-5 basketball team, not the Hall of Fame.
Follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN