There is something elusive about Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina. In a clubhouse than tends to be businesslike rather than boisterous, he seems more comfortable in the background than on center stage.
Mussina is as hard to read as one of his changeups: Is the 23-year-old right-hander aloof or merely quiet, a tad arrogant or rightfully confident, friendly or frosty?
Even his manager has had a difficult time trying to figure him out.
"Mike's a tough guy to describe," says Johnny Oates.
"I've always been like that," says Mussina. "Some might think I'm being arrogant. I don't want to be too predictable."
Trying to pin down Mussina's pitching style is equally problematic: Is he a control pitcher with a live fastball, or a power pitcher with incredible control? Does he have four pitches, or is it eight?
Is Mussina, as Rick Dempsey calls him, "the best pitcher to come into the major leagues since Roger Clemens"? Or is it only a matter of time before American League hitters catch on to his magic?
Those who have followed Mussina's fast-track career from small-town hero in Montoursville, Pa., to burgeoning big-league star in Camden Yards are hardly surprised by his stunning success this season.
Orioles coach Greg Biagini, who managed Mussina for parts of two seasons in Rochester, recalls the first Triple-A game he ever started. Facing an early bases-loaded, no-out situation, Mussina struck out the side.
"It was amazing," says Biagini, still shaking his head in wonder. "You knew right then he was going to be all right."
Says veteran pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, "When you start looking at his numbers, the one thing that stands out is that he's had success everywhere he's been. I don't think this is a big surprise to him. He expects it of himself."
Mussina's numbers this year are both sublime and ridiculous for someone who less than two weeks ago celebrated his first anniversary in the big leagues: an 11-4 record, a 2.44 ERA and three shutouts, including a 4-0, five-hit victory over the Detroit Tigers in his last start.
Except for Chicago's Frank Thomas, few have been able to get to Mussina with much regularity. After a masterful one-hitter last month in Texas, Ruben Sierra said of Mussina, "He pitched like a devil."
After striking out twice and going 0-for-4 on Wednesday, Detroit's Cecil Fielder said of Mussina, "He's been taught well. He's been listening to what somebody's been telling him."
Yet even Mussina is a bit stunned at how quickly it has evolved. After being the Orioles' No. 1 draft pick in 1990, he figured he would someday get to Baltimore. But not within a year. And he hoped one day to be an All-Star. But not in his first full season.
"I'm not surprised that I've been successful, but I don't think I expected it to come so soon," says Mussina. "I have a lot of self-confidence. The past is usually a pretty good barometer for the future. My past hasn't been too bad."
The readout on Mussina's career, if not his entire life, doesn't contain many blips. On the surface, it seems to be Roy Hobbs comes-to-life. Even Mussina admits that he is something of a natural.
He led his local Little League in hitting with a .493 average as a 10-year-old playing with 12-year-olds. He shot 92 the first time he ever stepped on a regulation golf course. He started for the local high school team as a freshman.
"I could always pick things up pretty fast," says Mussina, who keeps proving that.
"He was always a couple of years ahead of himself," says his father, Malcolm, a lawyer in Williamsport, Pa. "Mike always took a very logical approach. He would never try something that would overwhelm him."
While it might seem this has all been planned, the only blueprint belonged to Mussina. He would watch sports for hours on television, then go out and imitate his favorite players. Usually he went by himself.
Malcolm Mussina recalls how the older of his two sons would goff to work on his jump shot, or his placekicking, or his fastball. It wasn't the way most kids did it, fantasizing for a half-hour before getting bored.
"He would be out there for hours," recalls the elder Mussina. "Ithere was something he couldn't do, he worked on it. He had enough natural ability not to beat his head against the wall."
Mussina was something of a loner, mostly because his friends didn't want to put in the practice time. And there wasn't anyone in town who could teach him. His father jokes that "he exceeded me athletically by the time he was 10."
"Without sounding arrogant," says Mike Mussina, "there was nobody who could show me anything I didn't know."
It was the same with school. Though education was stressed in the house, there was a lot of self-motivation. A's were just as important to him as W's.
"School was school and sports was sports," says Mussina, who was offered scholarships to Stanford in baseball, Penn State in football and Vanderbilt in basketball. "Sports took me away from school to relax and school brought me back to reality."