By Sweeny Murti
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I asked Mike Mussina earlier this week if he’d be willing to talk to me after the Hall of Fame vote was announced Wednesday night. He told me it would depend on what happened.
Not with the vote, but with his basketball team.
For the last five years Mussina has been the boys’ varsity coach at his alma mater, Montoursville High School in Pennsylvania, and it had a big game coming up against Lewisburg. If the Warriors lost, it was probably going to be a rough night for Mussina second-guessing his own coaching strategies, so he might not have been in the mood to chat.
But with a 63-30 victory — Montoursville’s sixth in a row — secure, Mussina called me back to discuss the game as well as that other thing that happened Wednesday night, the Hall of Fame announcement.
Mussina isn’t heading to Cooperstown yet. He got that news not by watching the results, but by a reading a text from Tyler Kepner, the excellent New York Times baseball columnist. Mussina said he checked his phone during his son Peyton’s junior varsity game.
Despite falling 49 votes short of election, Mussina still totaled 63.5 percent, a gain of nearly 12 percent from a year ago. The 49-year-old former starting pitcher for the Yankees and Orioles is trending towards election this time next year, or in two years, tops.
“I feel good that everything’s been trending upward from the start,” Mussina told me. “It’s one of those things that’s really out of my control. There’s really nothing I can do other than see how it turns out every year. I think being a basketball coach helps because I’m not sitting around all winter thinking about (it). I even had to Google what date it was being announced.”
The waiting game is played a little differently in 2018, however, thanks to Ryan Thibodaux. On Twitter he is known as @NotMrTibbs. A few years back, the 36-year-old baseball fan created an online tracker to tabulate voting results as ballots are made public via social media in advance of the official announcement. Media and fans — anyone really — can follow along daily from late December when ballots start rolling in right up until the moment the final tally is announced.
Mussina Googled him, too, and knew not to get too excited, even when friends told him in recent weeks that he was polling at better than 70 percent.
“I’ve been through this enough times,” Mussina said.
But his friends still insisted, “You’ve got a chance!”
“And I’m like, ‘Fellas relax,'” Mussina said. “Every year that guy is about 5-10 percentage points higher than what it ends up. Let it play out. It doesn’t change anything if I don’t make it. I haven’t made it before, so we’ll see what happens.”
That’s not to say Mussina doesn’t know the magnitude of what might happen. He just isn’t refreshing tweets all day like the rest of us who have nothing better to do.
“It’s a big deal, obviously,” Mussina acknowledged. “It’s a huge deal, but I’m not causing myself any undue pressure or stress because I’m trying to watch it every (few) hours. I’m trying to coach basketball is what I’m trying to do.”
Mussina’s case for election is a good one, with two big factors that have changed since he retired after the 2008 season with 270 career wins.
First there was the election of pitchers Bert Blyleven (by the BBWAA in 2011) and Jack Morris (by the Veteran’s Committee last month). Both pitchers fell short of the 300-win milestone, like Mussina, and have the same number of Cy Young Awards on their shelves –zero.
“People have said stuff to me like, ‘this really helps your chances,’” Mussina said of Morris’ recent election to the Hall. “I guess it does a little. I see that angle. But you still have to get the votes. (Morris) achieved some things that I didn’t get to do. Maybe I won a few more games than he did, but he accomplished a lot of things, too, and he’s deserving. If it helps my chances, that’s awesome.”
The second thing that works in Mussina’s favor is the emergence of analytics. His WAR (83) and ERA-plus (123) sit nicely on his résumé next to his win total, five All-Star selections, and seven Gold Gloves. All of it has certainly bolstered his candidacy.
“I just think that maybe as time moves along people are realizing that winning 270 games and doing the things I was lucky enough to be able to do just isn’t that easy,” Mussina said.
It’s the journey that Mussina seems to appreciate more than the destination. Although he rocketed through the minors as a top prospect, he began his career with Baltimore at age 22 like most other major leaguers, unsure if he would last longer than the first day.
“I mean I’m from Smalltown, America and saw three or four games in my life in a major league stadium before I played there,” Mussina said. “It was just something that was on TV. It might as well have been a sitcom or a movie. So then I get to go do it and be one of those people.”
He was so thrilled when he reached 500 career innings he asked for the ball as a souvenir. And he did so each time he logged another 500 innings. Mussina finished his career with more than 3,500, averaging 226 per year. For a modern reference, Chris Sale led the majors in innings pitched in 2017 with 214.
Next year at this time Mussina might be able to get over the “almost” hump that he has joked about so often, the near misses on Cy Young Awards, World Series rings and no-hitters that dogged him during his 18-year career. If he gets above the 75-percent threshold within the next two years he could take the big stage with a former teammate. Mariano Rivera is a lock for the Cooperstown Class of 2019 and Derek Jeter follows in 2020.
“Obviously that would be fun,” Mussina said. “But I’ve got to get 12 more percent. We’ll see.”
Mussina claims when the next voting cycle comes along he won’t be consumed and angst ridden. There’s just too much going on at home for that. He has one son who just started high school, while his older son, Brycen, is continuing his college football career after having recently transferred from Lafayette to Shippensburg, which is still within driving distance from Montoursville.
“I’m not going to sit around, watching or listening to what people are saying, and causing a whole lot of anxiety for myself when it’s just going to be whatever it is,” Mussina said. “I’m thankful for everybody for voting for me and appreciating what I was able to do and hopefully everything will work out that it happens for me sometime.
“But I was a pitcher,” he added. “You just don’t get all worked up; you try to go out and do your job. I’ll try not to get all worked up about it, but I’m sure it’ll be different. I need 50 more people to think I was deserving for what I was able to do. I can’t dwell on it and worry about it. I feel good about it. We’ll see where it goes.”
Meanwhile, Mussina has coached his basketball team to a 10-3 record, which @NotMrTibbs might point out is a winning percentage of 76.9. After winning a total of seven games his first two years on the job, it seems his fifth year of coaching is also trending in the right direction.
Please follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN