O's 'Mike Mystery' strong, silent type Mike Mussina: In terms of his temperament and talent, the Orioles' unassuming ace stands alone.

April 28, 1996|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,SUN STAFF

When Mike Mussina walks into a downtown restaurant, there's no buzz, no head-turning, often no recognition that one of baseball's best pitchers is about to sit down.

Think that's unusual?

The reaction isn't much different when Mussina strolls through the Orioles' clubhouse. He'll nod at his teammates, chat with them, maybe joke around a little bit. But he's hardly the center of attention, which suits him just fine.

All of Mussina's teammates respect him, but few know him well. He's one of them, and yet he's apart. Todd Frohwirth, Jim Poole, Mark Williamson and Jamie Moyer were his closest friends on the team. Now, all of those pitchers are gone.

Mike Mystery doesn't mean to be distant, it's just sort of his nature. He always knew he was special, a three-sport star in high school and a top 10 student headed to Stanford.

All that could have made him insufferable.

Instead, it made him self-conscious.

His father, Malcolm, can remember him talking about his schoolwork, saying, "I don't want to do any better than I'm doing. There's no reason to try to do any better. I want to be accepted for being a regular guy. I'm different enough."

He never minded solitude.

He was always best when he was alone.

"All the things he can work on by himself, he's phenomenal," said Mussina's brother, Mark, 24, a radio sports talk host at WWLG.

And yet, Mussina's vision doesn't always extend to others. He was a point guard who scored 24 points per game in high school, but, in Mark's view, his game was flawed.

"In basketball, he wasn't a great passer," Mark said. "He didn't see the floor real well."

Pitching, then, is his true calling -- no other position in team sports offers as much opportunity for an individual who so relishes one-on-one competition.

If Mussina performs well, the Orioles usually will win. And, at a time when the state of pitching is in seemingly terminal decline, his .698 lifetime winning percentage is the highest among active pitchers.

Basically, what we're talking about is the Jim Palmer of his generation, but even in a baseball-crazed town, Mussina gets lost on a team that includes not only Cal Ripken, but also Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro and Bobby Bonilla.

Part of it is his slight build. Mussina doesn't look like a ballplayer. He's 6 feet 1, 180 pounds.

"I can go pretty much anywhere, unless I've been to the place a few times," Mussina said. "I really don't think I stick out. Most of the city just associates me with No. 35 and pitching, that's about it."

To be sure, it's not as though his face is plastered all over town. Mussina's only endorsement is with a sporting goods company. He makes few public appearances. He never has pitched in the postseason. Even some minor-leaguers seem ignorant to the three-time All-Star's accomplishments.

Frohwirth, Mussina's road roommate for three years with the Orioles, is now pitching with the California Angels' Triple-A affiliate in Vancouver.

"Down in the bullpen, we'll play this game where we're GMs, and we'll draft five starting pitchers," Frohwirth said. "I'll draft Mussina first. All the young guys will say, 'Come on, he's not as good as Randy Johnson.' And I'll say, 'Yes, he is.' "

Indeed, this could be the season in which Mussina becomes known as the Greg Maddux of the American League. He might never win four consecutive Cy Young Awards, but then, he never had a 6-14 season like Maddux did, either.

In the worst of his four full seasons (1993) he went 14-6 despite injuring his shoulder in a brawl -- a problem that hampered him for almost two years.

But the next Maddux?

Mussina doesn't think so.

"I honestly think that he is the best pitcher in the game," he said. "I'm still just Mike."

At home in Montoursville

Just Mike.

L What did you expect Mussina to say, "I'm bigger and badder?"

Maddux is famously unassuming, but at least he's from a glamorous place -- Las Vegas. Montoursville, Pa., is the anti-Vegas, a town of 6,000 about 10 miles east of Williamsport, ++ home of the Little League World Series.

"Until about five years ago, we had four street lights," Mussina said. "It's not large by any means. You can get from one side of town to the other in about five minutes by car -- maybe three minutes, if you don't hit any lights."

Mussina does not say that disparagingly -- quite the contrary. Montoursville is where he returns to coach high school football and basketball every winter. Montoursville is where his girlfriend is, where his parents are, where he plans to retire.

His salary this season is $4 million, but Mussina does not live extravagantly. His four-bedroom, 4,000-square-foot home in Montoursville sits on 100 acres. He bought it in October 1993 for $500,000.

During the season, he rents a Cockeysville home owned by Jeff Ballard, a pitcher who preceded him at Stanford and in Baltimore. He drives a 1994 Jeep Grand Cherokee. It is his only car.

One recent off-day, Mussina was in Montoursville, and his father asked him, "Do you ever have any desire to have one of those real fancy $4 million homes?"

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