Mussina goes distance out of duty

August 21, 1996|By John Eisenberg

He had grieved from a distance with the people of his hometown, and felt badly, so badly, about his absence.

"I don't know if feeling guilty is the right way to put how I felt," Mike Mussina said last night, "but I felt some responsibility to be there, and I wasn't."

Finally, he was able to break from the Orioles last weekend and go home to Montoursville, Pa., to attend a memorial service for the 16 high school students and five adults killed in the TWA explosion last month.

After a month of feeling out of place, he was where he belonged.

Back home.

Among friends and family confronting the tragedy of their lifetime.

"There's only 5,000 of us who live there," Mussina said, "and when you come from a place that small, you're supposed to be there for people when they need you."

He attended the service Saturday, spent Sunday at home, drove back to Baltimore on Monday night and went out and shut down the Mariners last night at Camden Yards, limiting them to two hits in seven innings.

Ever the pragmatist, he was hesitant to correlate his superb performance with the closure to the tragedy that his trip home represented.

And maybe that is, indeed, a reach, considering that the victory was his fifth in a row.

Yet it was clear that his mind, at last, was beginning to ease.

"The service was very emotional," Mussina said, "but it was important for me to go home and see everyone starting to heal and go on."

Until early last week it had appeared he would not be able to go; he was scheduled to pitch last Sunday in Oakland, which meant he could not leave for the weekend.

He vented his frustration when the Orioles were in Chicago from Aug. 9-11. The crash had been in the news for three weeks and the emotional weight of watching from a distance was beginning to bring him down.

"Everything has been hard," he said to a reporter that weekend in Chicago. "To look at the stuff in the magazines and newspapers, and see all the reports on TV, it's all been very hard. I really wish I was there. Even though I have no power at all to make anything better, it sure seems like I should be there."

He got lucky when the Orioles' game with the Brewers was rained out last Monday night. His Oakland start was moved up three days, from the last game of the series to the first.

He could go home.

"I asked [manager] Davey Johnson and he had no problem with it at all," Mussina said.

After pitching the Orioles to a victory last Thursday in Oakland, Mussina flew all day Friday from the Bay Area to Montoursville, arriving late.

The service was held the next afternoon.

"To see the families of the people killed, and to see the faces, that was very, very hard," he said.

Mussina is a celebrity at home and his presence was stirring, but he did not speak at the service.

"I just sat and watched and listened," he said.

He was able to get his work in, his regular throwing session in between starts, and also went to a high school football practice and visited with friends.

"It was your basic three-day weekend," he said. "I was really glad it worked out. The people there have been dealing with this for a month. I needed to be there."

It's maudlin to suggest he was inspired to pitch so well last night, but he certainly gave one of his best performances of 1996.

He gave up only one run, on a home run to Mark Whiten in the third inning. The Mariners, one of baseball's best-hitting teams, managed to get only one runner in scoring position against him all night.

After the first inning, they hit only one ball out of the infield.

"He used his breaking ball a lot early in the game, more than I have ever seen him," Johnson said. "Sometimes hitters expect fastballs from him, and when he started them off with breaking balls, I think it was confusing."

It is no secret that Mussina had struggled this season despite his 16 wins. Only he could struggle with the third-most wins in the major leagues.

"But I feel better about the choices I'm making now on the mound," he said. "I'm feeling good."

The irony is that he has become more consistent only after the crash, which, understandably, has been a terrible distraction.

"The first 10 days in particular were tough," he said. "I was able to clear my mind and go out and pitch. It was an escape."

Now, at last, he has done what he needed to do all along, go home and grieve with his friends and family. Do his part.

"I felt a responsibility to be there all along," he said. "I'm just glad I got the chance."

Pub Date: 8/21/96

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