February 07, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer


On a frigid midwinter night, in the only house in the neighborhood with a satellite dish planted in the backyard and a newly oiled pitcher's glove lying on the kitchen table, Eleanor and Malcolm Mussina are discussing their oldest son's future.

In the Crossfire: Mike Mussina -- Too Much, Too Soon?

He says: "Mike can't go 18-5 for the next 15 years. Nobody wins three-quarters of their games, not Sandy Koufax, not Cy Young. I'm sure the Orioles think he'll win 20 games next year. They just know Mussina can do it. Well, there are a lot of ways he can't win 20 games next year. I just sort of hoped he wouldn't make that All-Star Game last year. Now, he's expected to. I would have been satisfied at 12-10."

She says: "What are you waiting for? Why not go for it, now?"

He says: "I'd rather see a building, rather than something sudden, like, 'You're a phenom, the next Jim Palmer.' All that happy stuff. He's 24. He's mortal."

She says: "Go for it."

He says: "Well, it can't always be up, up and up."

Why not?

Who says Mike Mussina can't win 18 or 20 games in 1993?

He's talented, smart and healthy, the best young Orioles pitcher of a generation.

But isn't everything happening a little too fast?

Five years after graduating fourth in his class at Montoursville High School, he finished fourth in balloting for the American League's Cy Young Award.

Can you blame his parents for debating his baseball prospects? With so little past to work on, who can figure how this season will go?

His is still a career of possibility, launched with a 90-mph fastball, yet shaped by his uncommon intelligence. This is a pitcher, not a thrower, who was 18-5 in 1992 -- his first full season with the Orioles. Yet on the hori

zon are burdensome expectations of a team rebuilt and prepared to contend for a division title.

But so little is known about Mussina.

The right-hander, 6 feet 2, 180 pounds, remains inscrutable. He demands to be judged by his performance when he confounds hitters, not just with his variety of pitches, but with his mesmerizing concentration. Yet he is guarded and not exactly thrilled with interviews. He even wants to see the writer's clips before he starts talking.

Twenty-four going on 40.

Who is this guy, anyway?

"He's not the kind of guy who you could know if you were around Montoursville for a week," said his father, Malcolm, an attorney. "He really doesn't tell people what he thinks."

A local hero

Montoursville. Population 5,000. A long, long fly ball from Williamsport and baseball's Little League World Series. The town has six traffic lights, three schools, a couple of churches and gas stations and a Wal-Mart out by the interstate.

For a local hero, this is paradise along the Susquehanna.

Down at Cellini's sub shop, they have two walls filled with Mike Mussina pictures, caps, newspaper clippings -- even a Mussina autograph behind the counter.

Four hundred people showed up at the local American Legion hall to honor Mussina before Thanksgiving. He tried to watch a junior high school football game and spent the first half signing autographs. And Mussina donated his time -- and again, his signature -- to raise more than $8,000 to put up lights at the town's Little League field.

He has a key to the high school weight room. Works out with friends. Plays pickup basketball games two hours at a time. Pitches to his younger brother, Mark, a junior at Susquehanna College.

"It's a quiet town," he said. "Not too busy. Not too many people. It doesn't take a half-hour to get everywhere. I'm in my car, and, three minutes later, I can work out."

Here, in an isolated slice of central Pennsylvania connected to the rest of the country by the interstate and cable television, they know Mussina.

His chilling, brown-eyed stare and in-your-face fastball that some in Baltimore take for confidence bordering on arrogance is just his way of showing who's the boss.

His reluctance to talk about himself with reporters isn't insolence -- it's shyness, a trademark of a man terrified of graduating in the top three of his high school class for fear of having to give a commencement address.

"I hear a lot of people say he's cocky and arrogant," said Craig Ashley, who caught Mussina in high school and remains a good friend. "You get to know Mike, he's soft-spoken, and he knows what he has to do."

First impressions, even second ones, though, are often wrong. Turns out that the town hero, the perfect kid, would have been just as comfortable filling the role of town rebel.

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