Mussina's fresh start

Orioles: Mike Mussina endured an injury-filled 1998 and his club's slide from playoff contention. This year, he's ready for a healthy change.

February 25, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Given the chance, Mike Mussina won't ask for a 20-win season, a Cy Young Award or a sixth pitch. Given an obsolete three-year contract, he won't even come out and demand a new one (although he won't deny the concept sounds interesting).

Hey, this ain't Christmas; it's spring training.

All Mussina says he wants is an index finger that doesn't split every other start, a pain-free season and another run at October.

"I'd just as soon get past last season if that's all right," Mussina said before yesterday's workout at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. "A lot of things happened, not many of them too good."

Mussina earned 13 of the Orioles' 79 wins during 1998's fourth-place season while enduring two stays on the disabled list, once in April-May because of a wart on his right index finger and another in May-June because of a scalding line drive that smashed into his forehead just above his right eye. Now he says that trauma is behind him and, by extension, his team.

"Some good things happened to me last year," said Mussina, who became a father, "but too many bad things happened, stuff I really couldn't control."

"About everything that could go wrong for him did go wrong," said HTS broadcaster Mike Flanagan, last year's pitching coach in camp as a uniformed consultant. "Almost from Day One down here, things were never quite right for Moose. The finger, the line drive. It was unreal."

Symbolically, at least, things brightened yesterday when manager Ray Miller offered the biggest non-surprise of spring, anointing Mussina his Opening Day starter against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

"When you talk about a No. 1 starter, a lot of people automatically think of an overpowering guy who throws 94-95 all the time," Miller said. "Moose throws five pitches for strikes any time he wants. He has location and intelligence. To me, that's a No. 1 starter."

But last season was a non-starter.

As dominant as Mussina was in 1997 -- especially in the postseason -- he was just as star-crossed last year.

Coming off a 15-8 season and 3.20 ERA, two Division Series victories and a record 25 strikeouts in 15 ALCS innings, Mussina arrived at spring training and quickly learned a wart on his right index finger would rupture almost every time he attempted a breaking pitch. The problem caused him to abstain from throwing curveballs in the bullpen and eventually even in games. He underwent cryotherapy following an April 16 start but could not avoid landing on the disabled list for 17 days.

The bloody signature to his season came less than two weeks into his return when Cleveland Indians catcher Sandy Alomar smashed a laser shot back at the mound. Mussina probably averted catastrophic injury by tilting his head downward at the last microsecond; however, the sight still sickened several players and caused first base coach Carlos Bernhardt to weep in the dugout.

At the time, Mussina's wife, Jana, was seven months along in a difficult pregnancy with the couple's first child. Thankfully, she didn't attend the May 15 start.

"The club did a great job right after it happened," Mussina recalls, citing head trainer Richie Bancells and former assistant general manager Kevin Malone, who had stayed home with the flu that night. "They told everybody what was going on."

Mussina still wears a jagged scar, but at least the mental bruises have mostly healed. For a time after returning last June, Mussina recoiled after every pitch. The motion wasn't obvious except to anyone watching for a telltale sign.

Mussina, who never denied the difficulty of returning from the grisly injury, still recalls the sense of vulnerability that greeted him at the mound every inning.

"When I first came back, every ball I threw I wondered whether it was going to come back and hit me," admitted Mussina, who was 2-3 with a 5.63 ERA in his first five starts following the incident. "Eventually it got better, but I still [flinched] whenever a ball came back at me."

Entering his ninth season in Baltimore, Mussina owns 118 wins but doesn't possess a 20-win campaign, a Cy Young Award or a glitzy contract many would associate with one of the game's most consistent pitchers. As for a 20-win season and a Cy Young, he says, "If I don't get one, I don't think that will make my career a failure." As for his three-year, $20.475 million contract, his agent, Arn Tellem, has mentioned reworking something before it expires after the 2000 season.

"I think it's going to happen. I can't say when," Mussina says of a new deal. "My contract's going to run out eventually. I think I play a pretty important role on the team, as proven last year by missing just a half dozen starts."

Mussina signed what union chief Don Fehr termed a "garden-variety" deal almost two years ago that has since been dwarfed by Kevin Brown's seven-year, $105 million package with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Mussina has 66 wins the past four years to Brown's 61. Brown had a 21-win season in 1992 but lacks a Cy Young.

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