Improvement makes Mussina perfectly happy

Ken Rosenthal

March 09, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Mike Mussina isn't even married, but Orioles manager John Oates already envisions him as a demanding father.

"His kid goes 4-for-5, and he's all over him," Oates says. "He's asking, 'What happened that fifth at-bat?' "

That's Mussina, 23, the portrait of a perfectionist. This is a guy who hates giving up hits even in batting practice. A guy who can win a game 2-1 with 10 strikeouts and dwell on the pitch sequence that led to his opponent's only run.

Mussina retired all six hitters he faced yesterday in his first exhibition start -- three on strikeouts, three on ground balls. For once, not even he could find fault with his outing, a flawless 25-pitch effort against defending AL East champion Toronto.

"Oh, I went 3-1 on somebody," Mussina was saying with a broad smile as the Orioles completed their 3-1 victory. "But I came back and struck him out."

See, he's not always serious, it just seems that way. Ben McDonald, 24, wanders the clubhouse with his cap turned backward, a big kid looking for mischief. Mussina, a year younger, walks briskly with a fixed gaze, a poised businessman on the job.

That's not a knock at McDonald, whose playful nature is part of his charm. But Mussina (4-5, 2.87) made nearly as big a splash in his rookie season as McDonald (8-5, 2.43). Now he's at the exact point McDonald was last spring, and it's difficult to imagine him slumping the same way.

For one thing, he has avoided arm trouble since an elbow problem at Stanford in '89. For another, he's free of the expectations that burdened McDonald. The Orioles won't name Mussina their Opening Day starter even though he might be their best pitcher. They made that mistake once before.

McDonald was the first overall pick in '89. Mussina was the 20th in '90. In fact, he might be even more ideally suited for success. He displays a self-confidence that borders on arrogance. And he possesses a gift rare in young pitchers, the ability to visualize and correct his mechanics.

"He mimics people," Mussina's father Malcolm says from Montoursville, Pa. "If you let him watch Luis Tiant for an inning, he could go out and pitch like Tiant, the whole body turn and everything. It's almost like he can watch himself doing it."

Malcolm Mussina, of course, is a central figure in this saga. He's the attorney who supported Mike's decision to attend Stanford after the Orioles drafted him on the 11th round in 1987. He's also the man who first posed the question, "What happened that fifth at-bat?"

"We always realized no matter how good you were, there was always room for improvement," Malcolm says. "If you went 4-for-5, well, 5-for-5 is better. If you score 28 points in a basketball game, there's always the front end of a one-and-one you might have missed down the stretch.

"We never said, 'You did well enough, you don't have to do better.' If you give up two hits and one's a home run, you talk about the pitch you shouldn't have thrown, the location it should have been. That's the way we've been. But it's his attitude, too."

Indeed, Mike describes his approach in almost precisely the same terms. He says his father was "always long on instruction and sometimes short on praise, but for me it worked fine." As a boy, Malcolm recalls, the younger Mussina would sit outside the dugout between innings, away from his teammates, reflecting.

He twice was named high school Player of the Year in Pennsylvania. He set three county records as a wide receiver, defensive back and place-kicker in football. And he averaged 24 points in three years as the varsity point guard in basketball.

Mussina also likes golf, but it drives him crazy when he can't hit the ball straight. Baseball, of course, can be just as maddening. Orioles pitching coach Dick Bosman sometimes finds it necessary to remind Mussina that not every pitch must be on the outside corner.

That's the perfectionist at work. Strength coach Allan Johnson says Mussina is a "machine" in conditioning workouts. Oates says, "He's not satisfied with himself, no matter how well he does. He gives the appearance, 'I can be better, every single day.' "

This is a guy who earned his economics degree from Stanford in 3 1/2 years. This is a guy who made 31 starts and worked 210 innings between Rochester and Baltimore last season, yet stayed fit and focused

enough to post a 1.66 ERA after Sept. 1, second in the AL only to Oakland's Mike Moore.

Mussina jokes that his knuckle-curve doesn't start working until May, so yesterday he stayed with his fastball and changeup. Bosman says the look in his eyes is one of "composure and concentration, not one of panic and puzzlement." Yesterday meant little, but he was utterly in command.

For once, not even the perfectionist could find reason for discontent. "That's how I hope it goes for the next 250 innings," Mike Mussina was saying underneath Al Lang Stadium, barely cracking a smile, setting his goals high.

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