Orioles ace scales mound of concerns

June 07, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Greg Maddux pointed to his own battle wound, a black-and-blue mark on his left thigh three times the size of the baseball that created it.

But the ball that struck Mike Mussina?

Maddux couldn't even imagine.

"I can't comprehend something like that," the four-time Cy Young winner said yesterday. "It's never happened to me.

"I know every time they show it on TV, I don't watch it. I saw it one time. That was it. I never saw it again. You just look the other way."

Mussina, too, has seen the replay only once. How many times his mind's eye has revisited the Sandy Alomar line drive, only he knows.

Just as hitters fear getting struck by 95-mph fastballs, pitchers fear getting hit by balls that travel at even higher speeds off the bat.

"It's like death," Maddux said. "You know it's going to happen. You don't talk about it, think about it, dwell on it."

You just go on.

Mussina pitched the first game of the rest of his career yesterday, returning to the same Camden Yards mound where Alomar's drive broke his nose and inflicted a laceration above his right eye just 23 days earlier.

It wasn't a typical Mussina outing -- eight runs allowed in a 10-5 loss to Atlanta. But to the vaunted Braves staff, it was inspiring just to see him pitch again.

"It's my biggest fear in pitching, having something like that happen," said Tom Glavine, who recalled only one ball that stuck him above his waist -- a shot off his hand in the minor leagues.

"I don't know how he handled it to get back out so quickly. He's still got to have visions of what happened. It'll probably be a long time before he forgets about that, if he ever does."

Mussina said he has no such visions -- "I never saw the ball that hit me," he explained. "I have no image of what happened." But he allowed that he is not yet fully comfortable on the mound.

His uneasiness wasn't evident in his 4 2/3 innings -- he actually was dominant at times, striking out 10, walking one. If not for a few misplaced breaking balls, his results might have been better.

Braves manager Bobby Cox described Mussina as "a teeny-bit rusty," but no one should have expected anything different after a layoff of more than three weeks.

The big news -- from a baseball perspective, and from a deeper perspective, too -- is that the Orioles' ace is back.

"There have been people that has happened to who were never the same," Maddux said. "But he looked all right. Granted, it was only one time out. But he looked like he threw the ball pretty good."

To the Braves, to the Orioles, to anyone who witnessed the most terrifying event in Camden Yards' brief history, that was more than enough.

Sitting on a couch in the Atlanta clubhouse, the 43-year-old Dennis Martinez tapped his collarbone and chest, recalling his own brushes with fate.

"Sometimes I wish we could pitch with a mask and a chest protector," he said, speaking quietly, shaking his head.

Martinez said that Wally Backman knocked the ball off his collarbone, and that Brady Anderson practically drilled a hole through his heart.

Part of the game? Of course.

But the blow that Mussina took, it makes Martinez shudder.

"It takes a lot of courage to be able to get back out there, to be able to pitch again after the way he got hurt," Martinez said quietly. "Just being out there, the way he got hit, the injury that he had, you have to admire that kind of effort.

"Some people don't understand what is going through our minds when something like that happens. You never think something like that can happen. When it does, it drives some fear into you.

"I guess he was able to overcome that. Just being able to go back out there, that's a plus. It's a win situation. You have to give him credit. It takes a lot of heart to go back out and perform again. And I bet the next time he'll be a lot better."

Mussina would never make such a prediction, but he, too, believes that the worst is behind him, that the incident will fade in his memory, if not disappear.

He pulled his hand back on a Chipper Jones drive yesterday, but described that as a normal reaction. He did not flinch. He did not pitch scared.

"I did the best I could to make it just like any other time I was out there. I know the last time I was out there, I got hit," Mussina said.

"It will take me a couple of times out there to let that go away. But it will go away eventually. I wasn't throwing my glove up in front of my face after every pitch."

This is the way professionals respond, the way competitors react.

"I never sat down and thought about what I was doing to get back out there," Mussina said. "I just know that's what I was supposed to be doing.

"Guys get injured once in a while in this game -- pitchers, hitters, whatever. The best cure is to get back out there as quickly as you can."

Still, not even the great Maddux could relate to the challenge Mussina faced yesterday, the strength it took for him to get back on the mound.

"There's no way I can even know," Maddux said. "I've never been hit like that."

Pub Date: 6/07/98

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