Mike Mussina, who retired from baseball 10 years ago, is once again a candidate for election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Last year, he came as close as he has yet come to Cooperstown with around 63 percent of the vote. This year, he finally ought to make it, and breezingly, because he fits every possible definition of a Hall of Fame pitcher and is one of the great baseball pitchers of all time.
We hear that a lot at this time of year, when boxes are being checked on ballots before they're sent off to Cooperstown. Was this guy or that guy one of the best of all time? Eventually, you are asked, as a voter, to make that determination about pitchers and hitters or even a genius of a fielder like Omar Vizquel.
Mussina, in both Baltimore and New York, pitched his prime in a meat grinder called the American League East. Mussina's pinnacle came in an era in which, as Buck Showalter has always told me, "no one knew who was taking what," and the offensive numbers put a stain on the record books that will last forever. It is an essential part of Mussina's resume, providing both context and proportion to what he did and when he did it. As a remarkably gifted and reliable starting pitcher, he was one of the best of that time. It's why he is one of the best of all time.
His lifetime record was 270-153 (.638 winning percentage). Only five other pitchers in the history of the game have both won that many games and had a better winning percentage. He finished in the top six in voting for the Cy Young Award nine times. He finished second to Pedro Martinez in 1999, when Martinez was 23-4 with a 2.07 ERA and had 313 strikeouts in 213 1/3 innings. Through it all, Mussina was never the glamour guy -- he pitched in the time and against the primes of Martinez, Roger Clemens, Randy Johnson and three Hall of Famers from the Braves: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.
Again: He did all this as baseball was playing itself right into Sen. George Mitchell's famous (or infamous) report on performance-enhancing drugs, when 50 home runs in a season became more and more commonplace, and Sammy Sosa hit 60 three times, Mark McGwire launched 70 and Barry Bonds eventually hit 73.
Here's what Showalter said to me a year ago, another year when Mussina didn't make the Hall of Fame:
"Somehow, he was able to manipulate not just the ball, but the strike zone, too. No matter how much you scouted him, he would always find a way to show you something different, with his fastball, his cutter or his changeup. Pitchers will understand what I'm saying: Mike would create his own zone. I swear, I'd watch him sometimes and think he was like a conductor out there -- just with earplugs in, impervious to whatever noise was going on around him. The only way I can put it is that he didn't hear the music of the game as much as feel it. He had that kind of feeling for throwing a baseball."
He was that kind of pitching artist. Not the kind that Pedro was. Mussina never seemed to have that kind of magic. But they both pitched the way they pitched, in an era when baseballs were flying out of ballparks like golf balls. Pedro made it to Cooperstown, and so should Mike Mussina.
He came out of Williamsport, Pa., a pretty wonderful place from which to start in baseball. His very best years were with the Orioles. Then he signed a six-year, $89 million contract with the Yankees, which was very big money for a starter at the time. After he had pitched his way through that deal, he was still such a good pitcher that the Yankees signed him for another two years. It hardly ever happens that way on long-term deals for pitchers. Finally, in his last year, at the age of 39, Mussina won 20 and called it an elegant career.
Could he have continued? Yes, even as a starter at the age of 40, after finally getting to 20 wins in a season. But he left the way he came in with the Orioles when he was just a kid who quickly became somebody to watch. He was a top-of-the-rotation guy then and was a top-of-the-rotation guy when he chose to walk away. He finished with a lifetime ERA of 3.68 and an even lower lifetime postseason ERA of 3.42 across nine AL Division Series, five AL Championship Series and two World Series.
Randy Johnson, a contemporary of Mussina, pitched longer (22 seasons to Mussina's 18). But if you're keeping score at home, Johnson's lifetime ERA was 3.29. Johnson, striking out the world, just got to the 300-win threshold, and Mussina did not.
Mussina belongs in the Hall of Fame, absolutely. This isn't his last year on the ballot, but it should be his last time on the ballot, because of the way he pitched, for as long as he did, in the time he did. For the last time, and one more time today: All Moose ever took was the ball.