Mussina unfailing in drive to succeed

JOHN EISENBERG

March 04, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

SARASOTA, Fla. -- The pitcher has more pitches than the catcher has fingers: two kinds of fastballs, two kinds of curveballs, a slider, a changeup. He has control of each. Knows not to throw the one that isn't working. Doesn't frighten on the mound. Doesn't dwell on his success.

What's wrong with this picture? The pitcher is 24 years old.

"It's an age where you should be tinkering, still learning that extra pitch, still trying to nail down what you need to get over the hump in this game," Orioles pitching coach Dick Bosman said.

Mike Mussina is not tinkering. His purpose this spring is maintenance, not development. Less than three years removed from his first pro pitch, he has become the classic example of the sporting anomaly that is a coach's dream who needs no coaching, or very little, at least not right now.

"What would we tinker with?" manager Johnny Oates said.

It is a valid question. At 24, and already an All-Star, Mussina presents seamless circumstances. He has control of his art. He has Rick Sutcliffe to buffer him from big-game pressures. He has such a sharp mind that Bosman can't tell him much he doesn't already know. He has such a level head that he is busy this spring trying to forget the 18-5 jewel that was his 1992 season.

That's right, forget it.

"What good will it do me this year?" Mussina said yesterday. "The way I look at it, it just means that they're going to want to beat me that much more, so I'll need to be that much better. What happened last year was nice, but it's history. If I dwell on it, it's liable to make me think I'm better than I am. Liable to make me stop working hard. Liable to make me start taking things for granted."

Is this kid too much or what? "Let's just say," Bosman said, "that it's quite a package."

There is, however, one thing wrong with the picture. Baseball just isn't this perfect. Isn't this easy. Even the best players suffer through long, confounding slumps. Younger ones always struggle to their major-league feet, fighting off self-doubt. The very essence of the game is failure. The finest hitters make outs in seven of 10 at-bats.

Mussina may avoid much of that traditional toil, but failure of some measure will visit him one of these days. It is as inevitable as sunshine at spring training. The game just works that way. And it will be Mussina's first experience with failure.

"I've never faced it, not at any stop along the line," he said. "Maybe that's bad, maybe that's good. I don't know. I've just always been able to get hitters out. I don't know the reason. Why have I never had a problem? Why have I never had trouble being effective?"

Ben McDonald and Arthur Rhodes could have asked the same questions growing up. Their fastballs alone were enough to crunch every hitter in sight. Then they reached the major leagues, and hitters started crunching those fastballs instead of being crunched by them.

"It's a critical moment in the career of every pitcher," Bosman said. "You have to learn to deal with failure, or you're in trouble. I've worked a fair amount with Ben on that. It's a big mental adjustment. I went through it. Everyone does."

Of course, failure is a relative term in baseball. For a pitcher of Mussina's ability, it might mean 17-6 instead of 18-5. Or maybe 12-12. In any event, it will be lesser numbers than he had envisioned.

Maybe it won't happen this year. Maybe it won't happen for five years. Maybe it will strike suddenly next month. Whenever it does, Bosman said with a smile, Mussina might not be one to take it with singular grace.

"I don't know how I'm going to deal with it yet with him," Bosman said. "He's feisty. He doesn't accept mediocrity very well. He's such a perfectionist, he even gets mad about a mediocre workout in the bullpen. I suppose I'll just deal with it when the time comes."

Mussina has a similar attitude. "I don't think about it," he said. "When it comes around, if it ever does, that I'm not doing well, I'll deal with it then. But I'm certainly not going to sit around and plan ahead for a crisis."

Not that there is any reason, other than baseball's random and fickle nature, to suspect that a crisis is imminent. Mussina's pitching certainly offers no evidence.

"It's true there are going to be years when he doesn't win 18," Oates said, "but if he stays healthy, there are going to be a lot of years when he wins more than 18. I don't think for a second that that won't be the case."

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