- The Washington Times - Monday, October 20, 2003

NEW YORK - The heat is on Mike Mussina, tomorrow night’s World Series Game 3 starter for the New York Yankees against the Florida Marlins at Pro Player Stadium in Miami, and he has shown some signs of wilting.

In the end, though, Mussina’s talent may be enough to overcome his attitude.

After losing his third game of the postseason and second game of the American League Championship Series 3-2 to Boston in Game 4, Mussina was the most hated man in New York — well, at least the most hated man not wearing a Red Sox uniform.

He lost even though he held the powerful Red Sox lineup, one of the most productive in the history of the game, to three runs over 6⅔ innings. It wasn’t a historic outing, but it certainly gave his team a chance to win.

However, his team scored only two runs — not enough, realistically, to expect to win. And that’s what Mussina told reporters after the game.

“I can only control what happens on the mound,” he said. “Anything else that happens, I can’t do anything about.”

This appeared as though Mussina hung his teammates out to dry. And the New York media and Yankees fans on talk radio shows and Web sites blasted him for it. They got on him for losing all three games he pitched during the playoffs but also for not citing the company line that is typical in postgame interviews and is considered good clubhouse behavior. You know, “I struggled with my command,” or some other lie that would cover for the fact that his team couldn’t score as well as he pitched.

So when Mussina entered Game 7 against the Red Sox in the fourth inning and relieved Roger Clemens with Boston leading 4-0 and runners on first and third with nobody out, he was booed by the crowd at Yankee Stadium. Five minutes later, after Mussina struck out Jason Varitek and got Johnny Damon to ground into an inning-ending double play, he was cheered by the crowd.

Typical of New York fans.

And when the game was over after Aaron Boone’s 11th-inning walk-off homer gave the Yankees a 6-5 win, Mussina was among the list of heroes for the game after his three innings of shutout relief.

“The guy who stopped the bleeding was Mike Mussina,” Yankee manager Joe Torre said. “That was the turning point of the game.”

This is a crazy business, sportswriting. We rip players who are careful with every word, and never say anything that veers from the party line or expresses their true feelings. Then when a player actually speaks up, we rip him for that as well.

“Mike is very honest person,” Torre said. “He’s going to tell you about his frustrations. He’s going to come out and maybe not necessarily sound right sometimes. But Mike Mussina is as much a team man as anybody is on our ballclub.”

Now, either Torre isn’t telling the truth and is being the good manager that we all love for protecting his player — how strange is it when the media thinks covering for some is a worthy attribute — or the Yankees are the most self-centered, aloof group of players ever assembled. Because Mussina is a lot of things but a team man is not one of them.

One tends to think Torre was covering for his pitcher.

It may not be fair for Mussina to have taken so much heat for his pitching performance, but this is New York after all, and fair has nothing to do with it. When you leave cozy Baltimore after nine seasons — where you were beloved and could do no wrong, even with your cool, unfriendly style and take the big money ($88.5million over six years, starting three years ago) — to play in the nuclear spotlight of New York, this is what comes with it. He may be one of the top pitchers of his time with a career mark of 199-110 and he may be heading to the Hall of Fame, but nobody in New York is impressed with his resume. They want results. In other words, what have you done for me lately?

It may not have been in his contract, but someone as smart as Mussina should have known that every time he takes the mound, the stadium is filled with thousands of demanding Boss Steinbrenners and millions more watching on television or listening to the radio. It is part of being a New York Yankee.

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