But Oriole's pitch now is to Pa. football team


August 19, 1994|By Tom Keegan | Tom Keegan,Sun Staff Writer

MONTOURSVILLE, PA. — Montoursville, Pa.--It's raining in Central Pennsylvania. Flood warnings are in effect. And the local high school football team is on the practice field for the middle segment of triple sessions.

The assistant coach in charge of the secondary reads a hole in the defense, shoots forward, grabs a safety by the waist, moves him four steps to his left, backpedals out of the play, and puts his whistle back in his mouth.

Nothing about this coach's gait distinguishes him from any other high school assistant.

Only a close inspection of his red-billed, blue cap sets him apart. The lettering that rims the cap's logo reads, "Major League Baseball Players." It is an official baseball players union cap.

American League Cy Young Award contender Mike Mussina was not supposed to be standing in the Central Pennsylvania rain on this day. The Orioles ace was supposed to be resting in his hotel room, sheltered from the Texas heat, hours away from making a start that might have resulted in win No. 18 of the 1994 season.

Thanks to baseball's eighth work stoppage in 23 years, Mussina is teaching football instead. He's missed two scheduled starts and counting.

Instead of preparing to face the Texas Rangers, he was helping to coach the Montoursville Warriors varsity football team. Notre Dame helmets. UCLA jerseys. Big-time look for a small-town high school football team.

The Montoursville boys locker room has little in common with the carpeted clubhouses of major-league baseball. The unending drone of a leaky shower head. An overpowering musty odor. Is it the booming "Smashing Pumpkins" song peeling paint from the walls, or just the years?

No place serves as a better haven for a celebrity than a small hometown. At home, there is no need to suspect anyone of wanting to befriend you because of who you are. Montoursville, population 5,000, located four miles north of Williamsport, home of the Little League World Series, has a rocking chairs on front porches charm to it.

Mussina never had any doubt where he would head for the strike. He is living with his father Mike, an attorney, his mother, Eleanor, a nurse, and his brother Mark, a graduate student and wide receiver at nearby Susquehanna College.

At the local high school, Mussina blends into the coaching staff he has assisted for parts of the past three seasons. Mussina takes his volunteer job seriously, except when he is doubling over at one of the many jokes rolling off the tongue of line coach John Mazzante.

Mussina neither seeks nor is granted star treatment. Only some of the players from visiting teams treat him any differently.

"In our next-to-last game of last season, at Milton, a bunch of players from the other team came into our locker room, half-dressed, looking for autographs from Mike," Montoursville head coach Jim Bergen says.

To the Warriors, Mussina is just another Warrior. "He's just sort of like a friend, someone we joke around with," says Ryan Tira, a senior slotback and safety. "He teases us and we tease him right back. He tells us to get to work and we tell him, 'Oh yeah, where's your job?' He's helped me a lot. He's showed me what I'm doing wrong and how to correct it."

Quarterback and defensive back Ryan Swailes isn't much of a baseball fan, so he isn't reading the endless strike stories.

Whose side is he on, the players or the owners?

"I don't know," says Swailes, a senior. "I don't know much about baseball. I guess I'd have to be on Mike's side because I know he wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't the right thing to do."

'One of the guys'

Swailes views Mussina as part of the local landscape, not as a monument on that landscape.

"I've followed what he's done, but you don't sit and stare," Swailes says. "He's just like one of the guys."

Just like the rest of the guys, Mussina calls one of the linemen "Uncle Fester" because of his likeness to the "Addams Family" character.

After practice, Mussina heads off to Cellini's Sub House, owned by Charlie DeSanto, an avid sports fan who coached Mussina in Pop Warner football.

Charlie's son, Brian, was Mussina's catcher for Johnny Z's, the local Little League team.

"Mike was 12 and Brian was 10," Charlie recalls with delight. "After two innings, the catcher's hand hurt so bad he couldn't take it any more. The coach says 'Any volunteers?' Brian says, 'Yeah, I'll catch him.' That's how he started being Mike's catcher."

Thirteen years later, Brian's hand is hurting . . . two days after catching all but three of the 90 or so pitches Mussina threw to him.

Then he rubs his right foot, the foot a Mussina pitch hit hard.

"Slider, broke late and hard," Mussina says. "Bam. Hit him right in the foot. Didn't even hit his glove."

That pitch could have come in handy with Juan Gonzalez at the plate. Oh well.

Brian's hardball-playing days were over by the time he hit the ninth grade, but he can still catch.

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