- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 11, 2000

I can't figure out whether Peter Angelos feels bad or good about Mike Mussina being 1-4.

If Mussina is 4-1 and still hasn't signed the lucrative long-term contract he wants, then the pressure is squarely on Angelos.

But Mike Mussina is 1-4. If he continues to struggle, then Angelos probably will believe his refusal to make Mussina one of the highest-paid pitchers in the game is justified.

Vindication. It comes in such small quantities these days for the owner of the Baltimore Orioles that this little and short-lived vindication might feel good enough to put up with his team suffering as a result.

The vindication will be short-lived, make no mistake about it. Even if Mussina struggles all season, he still will be the prized pitcher on the free-agent market next season.

A poor season, compared to Mussina's typical standout year, may drive his price down. But teams still will be willing to pay and pay more than the Orioles seem inclined. They will look at Mussina's track record before 2000 a career mark of 136-66, the highest winning percentage in baseball history among right-handers with at least 200 decisions and figure this was just an aberration. With no physical problems and, at 31, possibly looking at his five prime years ahead of him, baseball people will figure the chaos that has ruled the Orioles franchise finally wore Mussina down.

It's clear Mussina's uncertain future with the club he is in the final year of his three-year, $21 million contract is affecting his pitching. There is no other explanation.

Mussina has none.

"I don't know what to do," he said after giving up four home runs in a 6-4 loss Tuesday night to the Blue Jays in Toronto.

In the past, when Mussina has struggled, it usually has been because of physical problems. That's not the case this year. He appears mentally out of his game, and that was never more apparent than when he gave up the second home run to Raul Mondesi on Tuesday night. I don't know if I've ever seen Mussina throw such a careless pitch.

The contract has hung over Mussina since spring training began. He even went as far as telling some former teammates now with other clubs he doubted he would be in Baltimore next season.

Some players thrive in contract years, but Mussina never seemed the kind that would. Even among all the chaos, Mussina always has been a creature of routine. He likes being within two hours of the small Pennsylvania town in which he grew up. He likes being in the same organization he has known since he was drafted out of Stanford 10 years ago.

If that is the case, it's arguable Mussina wasn't cut out for this game of free-agency chicken, that he should have taken one of the Orioles' offers, the latest being a five-year, $60 million contract. That's about 20 times the annual city budget of Montoursville, Pa., Mussina's hometown, and realistically more money than Mussina could spend in a few lifetimes, given his down-to-earth lifestyle.

And when we are talking about earning this kind of money for playing baseball, it always seems perverse to raise any questions about being underpaid, especially compared to the world outside the ballpark.

But you have to consider these figures in the context of the world inside the ballpark, where a pitcher like Mike Timlin earns $4 million a year. In that framework, Mussina is a $20-million-a-year pitcher.

Inside that world, Mussina already has taken the conservative route, agreeing to his $7-million-a-year contract more than three years ago. That was considered far less than market value, and Mussina took criticism from players on other teams for signing the deal. The players union urges its top players to go for the biggest deals possible under the premise it raises the contracts for everyone down the line.

Mussina is one of those players, one of the top-five pitchers in the game, in the same class with Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez. This time, it was the Orioles who needed to take the conservative route, and that would have been to lock Mussina up to a long-term contract before the season started. Anything else would be a gamble.

The Orioles rolled the dice, and in management's minds they probably think they've won. The game is far from over, though. Other players will want in, and Mussina may still wind up with the winning hand, even in a losing season.

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