Utopian '97 has Mussina now at peace Orioles: The ace of the staff carries a new contract, a trusted pitching coach and a memorable postseason into 1998.

March 15, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Mike Mussina will tell you straight up he doesn't like stupid questions. Doesn't like stupid pitching coaches. Doesn't like stupid rules. Doesn't like stupid assumptions from people who, stupidly, just don't know.

But ask him about 1997, his year of living right, and perhaps baseball's most intelligent pitcher wishes it could become a stupid movie.

"If I keep doing '97 over and over again, like a 'Groundhog Day' thing, I could live with that," he says. "But it's not 'Groundhog Day.' "

No, it's not, because Mussina's tale is real: how a guy who wakes up with a throbbing elbow three days before Opening Day turns something stupid like a bone chip into a seven-month run that includes a three-year, $20.45 million contract extension, a fourth straight 15-win season, an incredible pitching spree in the playoffs, the naming of mentor Mike Flanagan as pitching coach and, finally, marriage. Even though the Orioles didn't make the World Series, Mussina got a ring.

Looking back, the Stanford grad calls the whole thing "utopian." Twelve months ago, after arriving in Fort Lauderdale unsure of himself, Mussina, 29, prepares to enter 1998 favored to win the AL Cy Young Award and, in the words of Flanagan, "at peace with himself."

"There just comes a point where our state of mind is more important. That's how I felt last spring, and that's how I still feel," Mussina says.

The centerpiece for his security is the extension worked out in a face-to-face breakfast with majority owner Peter Angelos. Comfortable with his teammates, his surroundings and his personal life, Mussina thought it more important to stay in Baltimore than to push the industry's financial envelope. His agent, Arn Tellem, begged him not to take the deal. Pending free agents ripped him for it. Lesser pitchers such as Wilson Alvarez and Darryl Kile would soon sign for more. But, hey, it's not the money, stupid.

"I know that I could have and probably would have made more money, but I'm also relatively sure it would have been someplace else," he says.

So instead of sparring for a $9 million-plus annual salary elsewhere, Mussina returned home to Pennsylvania, got married, became a stepfather and let others second-guess his contract.

"I think the rest of the season could have been a lot different: the playoffs, the off-season, spring training, everything. If I don't make that decision, I've got people looking over my shoulder the whole season, especially in the playoffs. Who knows what would have happened?" says Mussina, who stuffed the Seattle Mariners and Cleveland Indians last fall. "Spending the whole off-season trying to focus on a wedding, then all of a sudden worrying about free agency would have changed a lot of things. I just didn't want to go through that."

So along with being the game's best pitcher never to win 20 games, Mussina may also be its most underpaid. Neither fazes him.

"He probably could have gone to Arizona for $50 [million] or $60 million, but his first win there would have been No. 1. His next win here will be 106 or something. Pretty soon, he'll catch [Scott] McGregor," says Flanagan, referring to McGregor's 138 wins in Baltimore, fifth-most in team history. "That's how you're graded. Guys who bounce around from team to team end up with a total record, but they really don't have a place. It's very important to him to have a place in Orioles history."

That place should include a leather recliner, a book of crosswords and a humidor. Mussina enters this season baseball's highest percentage pitcher (.682). He is the fourth-youngest Oriole to reach 100 wins and has averaged 230 innings pitched the last three seasons. In 1995, probably his best year, Mussina was 19-9 with 158 strikeouts and 50 walks in 221 2/3 innings. Last year, in 224 2/3 innings, he struck out 218 against only 54 walks.

A loner

Mussina has reached this point largely on his own. He admittedly doesn't trust easily. He is a grim-faced competitor, not a glad-hander. When pitching, he usually returns to the clubhouse while his team bats. His dry sense of humor can be mistaken for smugness. The American League thought him unfunny enough to suggest a more tolerant approach with the media during last year's playoffs.

"People misconstrue me all the time. I'm not the person who jumps up and says, 'Hi, how you doing? I'm Mike.' That's not me, and it never has been. I usually don't form friendships in five minutes," Mussina says. "People are going to write what they're going to write. They're going to do what they're going to do. I'm not trying to rebel. I'm not trying to be a smart aleck. I'm not trying to make a point.

"With the media, I expect a lot of them. If you're going to ask me a question, ask a substantive question. Don't ask me, 'How do you feel? How was your curveball working?' "

Mussina also has warred with pitching coaches. Finally, he knows two he can call his ally.

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