Mussina takes his town over the mountains


August 06, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

The pitcher's mother was on the phone. "There's this sports bar with a satellite dish here," Ellie Mussina was saying yesterday, "and the man who owns it went to school with my husband, and he opened up early Sunday so we could see the game. There were, oh, maybe a hundred people there. Just about anyone who'd had anything to do with Mike."

A hundred people crammed into a sports bar in a little town in the middle of Pennsylvania, near Williamsport, in Joe Paterno country, watching an epochal event in their lives: one of their own blood pitching in the major leagues for the first time, for the Orioles, against the White Sox. And the pitcher's mother sidled over to one of his high school coaches.

"Did you ever think . . ." she said, and didn't finish because it wasn't necessary, and the coach shook his head. "Of course not," he said. "Of course not."

Of course not. Because the majors are an off-the-board wager for a kid from Montoursville, Pa., a town of 5,000 surrounded by farms and hard by the Appalachian Mountains and Susquehanna River, a comfortable, insulated town from which kids don't stray too far, a place where they think big, but not too big, because there's just no percentage in it.

It is clean and well-lighted and sports are important and parents come to games, and there are signs on the outskirts trumpeting state champions, but the unwritten rule is that, in the end, you don't ask for much more than a shot at Penn State or, more likely, a smaller school. Tom O'Malley, briefly an Oriole, is the only other local to make it big.

"It's just that we're such a small community," the pitcher's mother was saying. "When Mike was younger and doing so well, my husband and I would tell him that he was, you know, real good for here, but that it might be a different story on the other side of the mountains."

Where the rest of the world was. Where there were thousands of other kids with precisely the same credentials: the best athlete in the county, the pitcher and point guard and wide receiver and place-kicker all in one, the litany of no-hitters and assists and field goals. The fourth-ranked student in a class of 175. The star.

This was the issue: How can you tell if your son is going to be the special one out of those thousands? How can you possibly tell, in Montoursville, if your son -- your quiet, laid-back son who prefers to stay home and watch TV -- how can you tell if he is going to be the one with the guile and luck and mettle?

The answer, of course, is you don't until you see it. The scouts kept telling the pitcher's mother it was true, and she kept nodding, but she didn't believe it until her son was invited to the Olympic Festival in 1986. And then, off his performance there, named to the national junior team.

"He went to Canada with the juniors and beat Cuba in a tournament," the pitcher's mother was saying, "and it was then we realized he was, you know, better than just good for Montoursville. It was then we told him he should get out there and find out just how good he was."

There was, then as now, so much to recommend him. His fastball was speedy and his curve broke devilishly, and his control was simply superb. The phone rang through his senior year in high school. Texas wanted him. Georgia Tech. Paterno wanted him to come to Penn State and kick field goals.

Then the baseball coach from Stanford called. "And I have to admit, I didn't know where Stanford was," the pitcher's mother was saying. "He told me and I said: 'California? Why are you calling us? You've got so many great players out there already.' "

It was that Montoursville thing again. That how-can-this-happen-in-such-a-small-town thing. But Stanford did want him and he wanted them, and the pitcher's mother said her goodbyes and her son traveled across three time zones to pitch. And study economics. And graduate in 3 1/2 years, an accomplishment as impressive as his 25-12 pitching record.

"He loved everything there," the pitcher's mother was saying, "except the earthquake. He was on the baseball field when it happened. His fraternity house was destroyed."

Then the Orioles drafted him last summer, and he wound up at Rochester, and his father -- an attorney -- and mother often made the 180-mile drive to watch him pitch, having long ago put aside any doubts, having come to trust him, to understand he was going to be a major-leaguer, that it was when, not if.

The moment finally arrived Sunday and the pitcher's mother and father and brother and grandmother came to the sports bar, and so did his aunt and her kids and the pitcher's high school coaches and teammates, and his brother's softball teammates, and some of his parents' friends and his father's law partners, and they all stared up at the big screen at their own blood on the mound in Chicago.

He lost, of course, but everyone knew it was a victory, that allowing four hits and a run in 7 2/3 innings was splendid for his first major-league game.

"And I was so worried," the pitcher's mother was saying. "He'd never pitched before more than 16,000 people, and now here were 50,000 cheering against him. He was so calm about it, though. He's always been so calm. Everyone here was just knocked out. What a great thing."

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