A throwback to his roots Mike Mussina: Armed with determination as boy, Orioles ace has made pitching perfection a lifelong pursuit.

February 25, 1996|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Malcolm Mussina has a snapshot of his son Mike throwing a football. The ball is coming off Mike's fingertips wondrously, a spiral, and his hand is turned inward, the classic quarterback throwing motion.

The picture was taken when Mike Mussina was 3 years old.

"I mean, how does that happen?" his father says. "Nobody could've taught him that. It was just perfect."

If he was blessed with the ability to throw a ball -- by the time he was 12, his father refused to catch him because he threw too hard -- Mike Mussina developed that talent with his others. Patience. Self-confidence. The ability to be honest with himself.

Now 27, Mussina begins the 1996 season with the highest lifetime winning percentage in baseball, .703, higher than Greg Maddux's, higher than Roger Clemens'.

The Orioles' ace has pitched in five seasons, two shortened by a strike, and Mussina already has 71 career victories, just 30 losses. And he has never played on a playoff team.

"Everything he's about is winning," said his former pitching coach, Mike Flanagan. "He's dedicated to making himself better."

It is his focus. It always has been his focus.

As a kid growing up in Montoursville, Pa., Mussina wasn't particularly social. He got along with his friends all right, but he didn't require their presence to be happy. He was quite satisfied, even at age 8 or 9, going down into the basement and throwing a rubber ball against a wall, for hours at a time.

His father remembers being woken up on Saturday mornings by the recurrent thumps from the basement and the occasional crash, when Mike hit the metal radiator instead of the wall. Using strips of tape, Mike made a box on the wall, a strike zone, and he aimed at this, simulating games. On the opposite side, there was a television, so Mike could watch games and major-league pitchers, and practice throwing as they threw, powering with his legs as Tom Seaver did, reaching far back like Ron Guidry.

Montoursville is the kind of small town where fathers come home to play catch with their sons, and Malcolm Mussina played catch with Mike. He didn't offer him much advice, perhaps noting that Mike's elbow had dropped too far to his side. His son seemed to throw naturally, he thought, and unusually hard.

But Malcolm didn't believe others who started telling him Mike was special. A man at one of Mike's Little League games told him Mike was the first American who threw like one of those Taiwanese Little Leaguers, no small praise in Montoursville; the Little League World Series is played in neighboring Williamsport, Pa.

Malcolm then decided to sit down with his 11-year-old boy and tell him he really wasn't that special as a ballplayer.

"There must be 10,000 other kids who do what you do," Malcolm told his son. Internally, Mike Mussina laughed with all the innocent confidence of an 11-year-old who only knew he was whipping every other kid in Montoursville. Sure, Dad, whatever you say.

His father stopped catching him the next year. Too dangerous. Mike didn't really say much, and today, Malcolm thinks that rather than being disappointed, his son might've been proud of the fact he was too good for his father.

Mike continued to spend hours practicing, mostly by himself. He'd take a football off to a field nearby to kick field goals or go shoot free throws, or maybe he'd grab his brother Mark to play catch, and he got better and better. Years later, Mike began coaching at Montoursville High in the off-season and he would tell his kids they shouldn't practice what they were good at; no, they should practice what they couldn't do well.

That's what Mike had done. He didn't know how to throw a breaking pitch, and he taught himself one, a knucklecurve he still throws today. He worked on his control, and he got better and better. By his junior year in high school, Mussina was asked to play on the Olympic Festival Team, and Malcolm realized there ** weren't 10,000 other kids better than Mike.

Professional scouts flocked to his games, and a Dodgers scout came to his house and told Mike he would be flown out to Los Angeles to meet owner Peter O'Malley, he would be brought up to the big leagues almost immediately. Such talk frightened Mike's parents, who hadn't told their son they thought it best he go to college, where he could develop as a person and not just as a ballplayer.

But Malcolm Mussina listened, amazed, as his son told the scout he shouldn't bother picking him. Mike told the scout he wanted to go to college, where he could develop as a person. "Mike," Malcolm says today, "has always been mature beyond his years."

Mike went to Stanford and learned a changeup and how to diagnose problems with his mechanics. He was in the majors the year after being drafted, and has become so adept at correcting his motion that he rarely needs help. If Mussina's motion on a particular pitch is flawed, Flanagan said last year, he corrects it instantly.

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