- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2003

Mike Mussina, by most accounts, is an ace. He has won at least 15 games eight times in his career and ranks among the top-10 active pitchers in victories.

But the Yankees right-hander never has reached 20 wins. And 30? That’s a ridiculous dream for him — and everybody else in baseball. Not since Denny McLain finished 1968 with a 31-6 record to lead the Tigers to the World Series title has anyone hit the mark.

It was the first time a pitcher won 30 games since Dizzy Dean in 1934 — and based on the changes in the game, it may be the last time.

“I don’t think it will ever happen again,” Mussina said. “You only get about 34 starts in a year, and just by sheer luck you are going to run into somebody who pitches better than you more than three or four times over a season.”

McLain, who won both the American League MVP and Cy Young in 1968, had 41 starts that season in a four-man rotation. That’s almost unheard of now with teams’ reliance on five-man rotations.

To put things in perspective, Curt Schilling and Tom Glavine led the majors with 36 starts last year. Randy Johnson and Barry Zito each had 35, and 12 others had 34. Of those pitchers, three of them — Johnson (24-5), Schilling (23-7) and Zito (23-5) — won at least 20 games. Schilling and Johnson both appeared to be candidates for 30 wins, but they came up short in what was probably their last, best shots.

“You would have to be some kind of dominant to do it,” Orioles pitching coach Mark Wiley said. “You just don’t get the starts. And the deeper you pitch into a game, the better opportunity you have to win the game, and you don’t see people throwing as many complete games. The bullpen has as much to do with it as anything.”

Glavine, for example, had seven no-decisions, compared to just four for McLain in 1968. McLain completed 28 of his starts that year. Last year, Johnson led the majors with eight complete games, followed by A.J. Burnett and Paul Byrd with seven. Schilling had five complete games.

“It would be real difficult for anyone to do it now, especially when everyone is on a five-man rotation and the number of starts has cut down,” said Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, who pitched for New York in 1968. “You have to be real fortunate for that to happen.

“Everything seemed to go right for [McLain] that season. He was playing for a great team and was on a great roll. I beat him in Yankee Stadium that year by a 2-1 score, and he said that was the only close game he lost all year.” Stottlemyre’s win came Aug. 24, breaking McLain’s streak of 16 straight road victories.

On July 26, 1968, McLain was 19-3, and the Tigers had a 6 game lead in the AL. With hitters like Al Kaline, Norm Cash, and Willie Horton, Detroit had a good offensive club in the year of the pitcher — when the league-wide ERA of 2.98 was the lowest in 50 seasons — which obviously helped McLain reach 30.

“When he didn’t have his good stuff, they would score him a lot of runs,” said Orioles bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks, who played for Baltimore in 1968. “They were a good team, and they rallied around him.”

In the early part of the 20th century, there were a number of pitchers who reached 30 victories. Cy Young went 33-10 in 1901 and followed that with a 32-11 season. Two years later, Jack Chesbro set the modern mark with a 41-13 record. In that same season, Joe McGinnity went 35-8, and Christy Mathewson had a 33-12 record.

Since McLain, the closest anyone has come to 30 wins was Bob Welch, who went 27-6 with the Oakland Athletics in 1990.

Pitchers with far greater careers and credentials than McLain came close. Sandy Koufax went 27-9 in 1966. Two years later, Juan Marichal won 26. In 1972, Steve Carlton had among the most remarkable seasons for a pitcher in major league history when he went 27-10 for a Philadelphia Phillies team that won only 59 games.

Jim Palmer won 20 games eight times for the Orioles, but the most he won in a season came in 1975, when he went 23-11.

“I don’t think anyone will do it again,” Palmer said. “You just don’t get enough starts. You would have to win 30 out of 34 starts.

“Earl Weaver said I was going to be the next 30-game winner, and I hadn’t even won 20 yet when I started the All-Star Game in 1970. I said, ‘Earl, should we maybe wait until I win 20 before we start to talk about winning 30?’”

McLain never reached such heights again, and he became better known for his problems off the field. The following season he went 24-9 and tied Baltimore’s Mike Cuellar for Cy Young honors but struggled after that. He was traded to Washington and became a 20-game loser in 1971. By 1973, he was out of baseball with a 131-91 record over 10 seasons.

The spiral began after he was suspended for the first three months of the 1970 season by baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn for his involvement in a bookmaking operation. Two more suspensions followed that season, including one for gun possession.

The problems continued even after his career. In 1985, he was convicted in Florida on racketeering, loan-sharking, extortion and cocaine possession. He spent two years in prison before getting a new trial, and he was released in 1989. Twelve years later, McLain was convicted of stealing money from the pension fund of a company of his that went bankrupt. He was sentenced to eight years in prison and ordered to pay $2.5million. He currently toils at a Michigan convenience store on a work-release program and is prohibited from speaking to the media.

However tarnished his legacy may be — and however he may have squandered his talent on the field — McLain’s place in baseball history as the last 30-game winner is secure. Despite all the pessimism about the prospects of another 30-game winner, Hendricks believes some young pitcher may do it again.

“I thought Schilling had a shot,” Hendricks said. “I thought Randy had a shot, too. It wouldn’t surprise me if one day [Chicago Cubs starter] Mark Prior does it if he doesn’t get hurt. Somewhere along the line, some young buck will come along and do it.”


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