- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 20, 2001

TAMPA, Fla. Sitting at a table, eating a sandwich in the New York Yankees clubhouse at Legends Field last week was a player who had once hoped that he, too, might be a legend a Baltimore Orioles one.

Mike Mussina still may someday rank as an Orioles legend. He will go down in the record books with the second-best winning percentage (.645) among starters in franchise history, third in wins with 147 and second in strikeouts with 1,535 over 10 seasons.

Those are the final numbers of Mike Mussina's Baltimore Orioles career. He would have liked to have left a much bigger legacy with the franchise and its fans.

"It would have been great to leave my mark in the record books, right there with [Jim] Palmer," Mussina said. "I think I could have. That would have been great to do that. I do think I accomplished a little of that.

"If I had gotten the same contract there that I got here … I'm not saying that I would have done what Palmer was able to do, but who knows? But that's not the way it worked out. It could have, but it didn't."

No, it didn't work out. It didn't work out big time for the Orioles, who let the second-greatest pitcher in the history of the team not only leave, but let him go to their greatest rival. It couldn't have come at a worse time either the Orioles at their lowest since the 21-game losing streak team of 1988, the Yankees coming off their third straight World Series championship.

It is the perfect case of the rich getting richer and the dumb getting dumber.

Case in point: owner Peter Angelos made a dumb move by signing Albert Belle to a five-year, $65 million contract. So he tried to fix the first mistake by not paying Mussina his market value, which the Yankees determined was six years, $88.5 million.

A dumber move.

Now Mussina will create a new legacy on a team that is so rich in legacies it doesn't need any more. Pitching in Yankee Stadium with Mariano Rivera in the bullpen, Mussina could win 25 games this year.

But he will always have a special place for his time as an Oriole and talked about some of his best and worst moments:

"Making the All-Star Game in my first full year [1992] was exciting. I start the year as the number four starter, and just three months later I get selected to represent our team. I'm playing on the same team with Cal, and you know Cal is going every year, so you really have to accomplish something to also be chosen.

"Not pitching in the All-Star Game at home was one of the worst [when Toronto manager Cito Gaston refused to put Mussina in the 1993 game at Camden Yards]. There was something strange going on there. I don't know what it was, some kind of revenge thing. It didn't make sense. You had a game that was wide open, 9-3. I've noticed ever since then when you have a guy pitching in his own ballpark, he's in the game second or third. He's in before there is ever a question.

"The almost-perfect game [against Cleveland in 1997, when Mussina retired the first 25 batters he faced before Sandy Alomar singled with one out in the ninth] was one of my best memories. I remember that moment in my career because it's how I'd like to feel all the time out there, as far as having control over what is happening. To have that much control over the game is so very rare. That's what you strive for every time you go out there.

"Making the playoffs in 1996 and 1997 was one of the best. In 1996 we had to scrape to get there, then somehow we played great and Cleveland played so poorly, and it's a short series, so anything can happen. And if [Rich Garcia, the right-field umpire who called Derek Jeter's ball a home run when 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier reached over the wall and interfered with it,] doesn't make that call in right field, we could have left there up two games to none.

"In 1997, for those four playoff games [in four postseason starts against Seattle and Cleveland, Mussina allowed just four runs on 11 hits, striking out 41 batters in 29 innings pitched], that is probably as good as it will ever get for me for four games. At the same time, it was one of the most rewarding and most disappointing times for me because we lost."

Getting hit above the right eye on a line drive, also off the bat of Sandy Alomar, in 1998 was obviously one of the worst times of the 32-year-old right-hander's career as an Oriole. And finally, last season was one long disappointment, culminating in a meeting with Angelos in the owner's Harrisburg, Pa., law office in late October.

"Last year I was throwing the ball as well as I could possibly throw it innings, ERA, strikeouts, everything that should add up to real good season," said Mussina (237 2/3 innings pitched, 3.79 ERA and 210 strikeouts). "When you are one, three and three in those categories, it should add up to a pretty good season. But it didn't [Mussina's record last year was 11-15].

"That was disappointing and also the fact that the team was taken apart the way it was. I know you have to make moves sometimes. I understand that. We didn't play up to our expectations. But I still believe if we were trying to have any stability as far as position players go, when we traded away [B.J.] Surhoff and [Mike] Bordick, we traded away that stability. Here you had two of the position players that anybody on our team could look to and know that they were doing everything they possibly could to be better every day. They are two of the best examples that you could have of the way to go about your job. That 48 hours really threw on the switch for me that they were going someplace else with this, that there was another plan."

It became clear to Mussina that he was not in their plans.

"I was looking forward to having the chance to play my whole career in Baltimore," he said. "But the process kept dragging and dragging, and nothing was happening. We get to the postseason, the playoffs are going on, and still nothing is happening. It was frustrating. After playing 10 years for this club, believing I was as important as anybody, they basically showed no interest. We had to call them is the way it panned out."

He didn't have to call the Yankees. They called him and called him. Manager Joe Torre called him just days after Mussina became a free agent. "Joe's call was about timing more than anything," he said. "He could have talked about the weather or some book he read last week. It didn't matter to me. It was the timing, and the fact that he called and showed interest. I was at a point where Baltimore had showed so little interest, and then this organization showed so much interest in a very short time after winning a championship with a lot of other things going on."

They have also worked hard to make him feel like a Yankee since he signed. "I was getting Christmas cards from players here," Mussina said. "From the day I signed, it was like I was part of this organization, almost immediately."

Did he ever get a Christmas card from Peter Angelos?

"Are you kidding?" replied the Yankees' newest legend-in-the-making.

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