Not Worthy Of Cooperstown

by
Samori Benjamin

Mike Mussina's case for the hall of fame would be stronger had he won a world series, the way Yogi Berra did, during his 8 seasons in the Bronx.

Last month New York Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina announced he was retiring from major League baseball at age 39 after an 18 year career.  Even though there were reports that Mussina would bid adieu to the Yankees and Major League Baseball before the announcement became official on November 20th, Mussina’s retiring is still a shocking one.  After reaching the elusive 20 win mark for the first time in his career this past season, Mussina chose to retire to his home in Pennsylvania and spend quality time with the family, rather than continuing to chase a few career highlights, that if reached, would make him a sure shot hall of famer.  Without it, it is very questionable whether Mussina should walk through the hallowed grounds of Cooperstown.

Mussina’s retirement is an admirable one.  We can count on one hand the athletes who have left the game they love while still on the top of their game.  Mussina leaves without winning a World Series championship, which all the great athletes chase to cement the legacy of their careers.  Mussina also passes on the opportunity to play in the New Yankee Stadium which opens next season, an experience that’s worth hanging around for another season all in itself.  The final carrot that made Mussina’s retirement surprising is the fact that he currently sits on 270 career wins, 30 shy of 300.  Every pitcher who has won 300 games and is eligible for the hall of fame, is in.   Without achieving these career milestones he should not be elected to the hall of Fame.  In the end, Mike Mussina was a pitcher with great stuff but was never a great pitcher.

Mussina entered the 2008 season on the final year of a two year contract that paid him a little over $10 million per year.  The season before in 2007, Mussina struggled all season long, this followed a few shaky seasons previous to that, and it appeared that the wheels to his career were finally coming off at the hedges.  He pitched to a 5.15 E.R.A., the worst in his career by a whole lot.  He lost his starting spot, and it looked as if the Yankees would have been better off to cut ties with him and eat their losses for what they owed him on the final year of the deal.  Then out of nowhere in 2008, against much opposition from both media and fans alike, Mussina was brought back and had a fantastic season winning 20 games and posting a 3.37 E.R.A., his best since his first season in the Bronx in 2001.

The fact that 2008 was Mussina’s best season in pinstripes since 2001 is a damning testimony to his case for the hall of fame.   Mussina won 17 games that season.  His highest win total between then and 2008 was 18 in 2002.  Mussina played for Yankee teams that had dominant lineups which were relentless in the regular season, winning their division year after year.  But he was unable to post a 20 win season before 2008.  A performance that had very little impact on the Yankees season.  After all, they were sitting at home in October for the first time since 1993.  Mussina never got close, really, to winning 20 games with the Yankees in any other season.  With the Yankees, Mussina never had a season where he pitched to an E.R.A. under 3.00.  The only time he did, in a season in which he started more than 12 games, was once in 1992.  Mussina had his moments on the mound with the Yankees where he was brilliant, but he never looked like a pitcher who was capable of carrying his team to a World Series run, even with all the offensive muscle he had backing him up.  Over this same period, the Yankees spent hundreds of millions of dollars on pitchers acquired from other organizations who they hoped would be the ace pitcher they needed.  If the Yankees had felt they had themselves  a big-time ace all along, they would have stopped the search along time ago and saved themselves many millions and aggravation from deals gone bad.  I.e.  Kevin Brown, Roger Clemens circa 2007, Carl Pavano, Kei Igawa, Jared Wright, and Randy Johnson.

Mike Mussina retires with a career record of 270-153.  Almost every pitcher in major league baseball history who has won 100 more games than they have lost have been elected to the hall of fame.  But numbers can deceive and mislead sometimes, thus the case for Mike Mussina.  Far too many times he cried about having to pitch in less than ideal circumstances, whether it was the weather, some kind of interference in his pre-game routine, or having to pitch in Japan, there was always something. The Hall of Fame is a sacred place that should only belong to the best of the best.  A player who is more than an all-star.  Someone who was dominant on the field, approaching heights reached by only a handful of players in the history of the game.  That pitcher is not Mike Mussina.

Mussina spent the first ten seasons of his career with the Baltimore Orioles where he made his name.  He was often talked about in the same breath as the top pitchers in the game.  He had tremendous stuff, including a Sl-urve pitch which was categorized as a half curveball, half slider.  But Mussina never pitched up to the hype that others spoke of him.  With the Orioles in the 90’s he pitched for a collection of teams who were good and competed with the Yankees for the American League East pennant.  He matched up against the Yankees a few times in big games during his time in Baltimore and often failed to get the job done.  Mussina never won 20 games in Baltimore, nor did he win the Cy Young award.

In 2001, Mussina was given a six year free agent contract by the Yankees, and was supposed to be the team’s next great ace.  A pitcher who was going to pick up where the great Yankee pitchers of the late 90’s left off, and continue the legacy of championship success.  Mussina’s first Yankee postseason saw him have what might have been his best start ever in Pinstripes.   Down 2 games to none on the road against the Oakland Athletics and facing elimination from the first round Mussina was on the top of his game in the third game of the series.  Unhittable.  Throwing seven scoreless innings in a 1-0 victory which led to the Yankees rallying to win the series 3-2.  The Yankees and Mussina would eventually go on to lose the World Series in seven games to the Arizona Diamondbacks.

A knock on Mussina’s game is that he was a pitcher with tremendous stuff but too often failed to fight through games in which he did not have his best stuff.  On a rough night when he gave up a few early runs, he was more likely to continue to get rocked as opposed to fighting through the adversity and still being able to give his team six or seven innings.  Mussina certainly was not a grinder.  He either had it or he didn’t.  One such moment however where this was not the case was  in game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox.  A performance that has almost gone down in Yankees lore.  Roger Clemens was on the wrong end of a duel against his former team and Pedro Martinez, a pitcher who certainly will; be a first ballot hall of famer.  Clemens was a first ballot hall of famer as well in 2003.  But a lot has changed since then.

Clemens was knocked out of the game in the third inning down 4-0 with runners on first and third and no outs.  Mussina was summoned out of the bullpen for the first time in his career.  He proceeded to retire the Red Sox without allowing another run, and then pitched two more scoreless innings.  The Yankees rallied to win the game 6-5 on Aaron “bleeping” Boone’s homerun, and they had Mike Mussina to thank for giving them another trip to the World Series, and another moment where they added to Boston’s 86 years of misery.

Mussina had 123 wins in his Yankees career.  One could argue he was the beneficiary of a great Yankee team behind him, one that made the postseason 13 consecutive seasons.  If Mussina were truly a pitcher worthy of being elected into the hall of fame, shouldn’t he have been able to post a 20 win season a lot sooner than before his final season in the Bronx?  He was never even the best pitcher in the game or in his league.  He never made an all-star team with the Yankees and he never had a moment in his career that defined greatness.  Defining moments like Curt Shilling knocking off the Yankees in two separate post seasons that led to his team’s winning the world series.  Both times he had a big hand in putting an end to long streaks.  Or John Smoltz who has one of the best postseason resumes of all-time, with 210 wins and another 154 saves.  These two contemporaries of Mussina will not have reached some of the historic milestones either, that Mussina failed to reach, whenever they decide to call it quits.  But when Schilling and Smoltz were at their best they were great and as good as any pitcher in the business.  They both have World Series rings to show for it.  Something Mussina will never have.  If he pitched like a true ace in Baltimore the Yankees might not have ever started their late 90’s dynasty with their first world series win in 96’, when Mussina’s Orioles lost to the Yankees in the ALCS.  And if Mussina had pitched like an ace with the Yankees they might not be in a seven year drought of winning the world series.  A drought that began the season he stepped foot in the boogie down. 

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