- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2000


The clock is ticking for Mike Mussina. The hour glass has been turned over, and it's closer to the end than the beginning.

"It goes quicker every year," Mussina said yesterday, reflecting on his career while dressing in front of the locker, preparing for his sixth Opening Day start when he takes the mound today at Camden Yards against the Cleveland Indians.

All of a sudden Mussina is 31 years old, and starting his 10th year in the major leagues so far, all for the Baltimore Orioles.

"Realistically I'd have to say I'm at least starting the second half of my career," he said. "If I can pitch past 37 or 38 years old, I would consider myself fortunate."

Mussina already considers himself fortunate to have pitched this long with the success he has had.

"I appreciate every day I get a chance to come here more than I did maybe eight or 10 years ago," he said. "I think I have a handle as to how lucky I am to have been able to do this as long as I have, and feel even more blessed to hopefully be able to do it for quite a few more years."

All of us who have watched Mussina pitch should feel fortunate we have had the privilege to see him work. He, along with Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson, are the great pitchers of their generation. With a career mark of 136-66, Mussina has posted the second highest winning percentage (.673) among right handers with at least 200 career decisions. People go to the ballpark to see Mike Mussina pitch.

That's why everyone should savor today's Opening Day. It could be the last Mussina pitches in an Orioles uniform.

Mussina and the Orioles are about to set sail on some dangerous waters. The five-time All-Star hurler is in the final year of his contract and will be a free agent at the end of the season. Like Mussina's career, as each day passes, he is closer to the end of his time in Baltimore.

The last reported offer the Orioles made to Mussina was five years for $60 million, with about $10 million of it in deferred money. Both sides have been amicable so far publicly, and Mussina has not set any deadlines for making a deal.

But there is no reason why the Orioles shouldn't have signed Mussina to a long-term deal before it reached this point. Of all the players they wasted money on, the one player they should be paying Mussina they are reluctant to.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos seems determined to repeat the same mistake he made when he let Rafael Palmeiro go into his final year without a contract. He gave Palmeiro the chance to explore options, and the option to go back to Texas was more attractive than to take the Orioles' last minute offer for more money.

Mussina feels Baltimore is his home. It's the organization he came up with, and it's just a little more than two hours from where he grew up and lives during the offseason in Montoursville, Pa. Mussina has made it clear he is happy in Baltimore and would like to finish his career with the Orioles.

And Mussina is not your typical ballplayer. He is not one that measures his value with money alone, as evidenced by the current contract he has a three-year, $21 million deal that was so far below his market value that other ballplayers criticized him for signing it.

The Orioles may believe because they have all this in their favor, they can afford to play hard ball with Mussina. But as each day passes, Mussina gets closer to listening to offers he may not be able to refuse. On the free agent market, the bidding for Mussina could start at the record-setting amount ($15 million a year) that Kevin Brown got two years ago. There will be suitors, like Atlanta, Cleveland, and the Yankees, who will be willing to pay that and more for a pitcher in his prime who has won more than twice as many games as he lost, even on losing teams the past two seasons. There is a good chance he will win again this year for a third straight losing team.

Opening Day is a special moment in America, as much a symbol of renewal in America as buds on a tree. Having a pitcher like Mussina to open the season only makes the moment better.

It means a lot to him to be the Opening Day starter. "It's an important game to the team and the city, a game that everyone has been looking forward to," he said.

"It may even mean more to me when I retire and can look back on it."

It may be a bittersweet memory for everyone, though, if it's the last Opening Day Mussina pitches for the Orioles.

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