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The relief outing that sealed Mussina's HOF call

@BryanHoch
September 1, 2019

NEW YORK -- Eight innings before Aaron Boone drove a knuckleball over the left-field wall to secure the 2003 American League pennant, authoring an indelible memory for countless fans of a certain age, Mike Mussina peered through the plexiglass window of the Yankee Stadium bullpen and heard a ringing telephone.

NEW YORK -- Eight innings before Aaron Boone drove a knuckleball over the left-field wall to secure the 2003 American League pennant, authoring an indelible memory for countless fans of a certain age, Mike Mussina peered through the plexiglass window of the Yankee Stadium bullpen and heard a ringing telephone. The call was for him.

With the season on the line, Mussina had promised pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre that he could toss a few innings, and Roger Clemens was making it necessary. Homers by Trot Nixon and Kevin Millar had staked the Red Sox to a 4-0 lead by the fourth inning, and as Mussina hurriedly snapped curveballs, sinkers and sliders into the bullpen catcher's glove, he experienced a moment of anxiety that had nothing to do with Boston's powerful lineup.

Mussina's journey to the Hall of Fame

"I'm a starter. I don't jog across the field," Mussina said. "I walk across the field with the pitching coach, with my jacket on, 10 minutes before the game starts. I don't run across the field straight at the mound with 10 million people watching on television and the whole stadium going nuts. I just didn't want to fall down, didn't want to trip and fall down or look stupid running. I could hear my heart beating in my ears."

Mussina decided that his safest play would be to jog across the outfield grass, then walk when he reached the infield dirt. Mussina remained upright, and when he ascended the mound to accept the baseball from manager Joe Torre, he surveyed the scene. Trot Nixon on third base, Bill Mueller on first, nobody out and Pedro Martinez looking sharp. Go get 'em, Moose.

"I'm in relief in a game that we're probably going to lose," Mussina said. "Pedro is pitching for the other team and we're already down 4-0. Most likely, this isn't going to work out for us. … It didn't seem like a big deal at all. It seemed like mop-up time. If I do that 20 times, how many times do we come back and win? Once? Twice, maybe?"

Of course, the Yankees did come back to win. Mussina struck out Jason Varitek, then induced Johnny Damon to hit into a double play, then held Boston down in the next two frames. Mussina said that those three innings probably represent a significant portion of the resume that -- in his sixth try – granted induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

"When we won Game 7 in '03, he's my biggest memory of that, seeing the aftermath and the joy that he was experiencing in the afterglow of that game," Boone said. "I loved playing behind him. He was so good at his craft. You felt a responsibility playing behind him. There was an intensity to him. I loved being around him. I'm just glad to see him get the recognition of the Hall of Fame for how great a pitcher he was."

The Yankees celebrated Mussina's selection on Sunday, as he tossed a ceremonial first pitch to his son, Peyton, a high school junior. As part of the festivities, the club made a $35,000 donation to the Montoursville (Pa.) Area High School Athletic Department, where Mussina volunteers coaching youth sports.

"All the kids that I know now were all too young to remember that I played," Mussina said. "They have to go on YouTube or something to find a video, and all they ever find is me yelling at Torre (to stay in the dugout)."

Six weeks after joining Mariano Rivera, Edgar Martinez, Harold Baines, Lee Smith and the late Roy Halladay in comprising the Hall's Class of 2019, the owner of 270 Major League victories for the Orioles (1991-2000) and Yankees (2001-08) said that it is still strange to think about his name being placed alongside the legends who inhabit Cooperstown.

"None of us ever start out to achieve something like this," Mussina said. "We just play the game because we love to play the game, and people keep telling us that we're good enough to keep playing. I still don't know how it happened. I was just pitching, doing what I was supposed to be doing and what I liked to do."

Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and Facebook.