Mussina worth every penny to O's

July 25, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

He is at the top of the Orioles' list of untouchables, one of baseball's premier pitchers operating in the prime of his career.

Regardless if the club undertakes a major or minor reconstruction project, Mike Mussina will be the centerpiece.

It's time for him to have a contract worthy of such a status.

Not that he's underpaid at $6.825 million a season, under the terms of the three-year, $20.475 million contract he signed before the 1998 season. "I'm well-compensated," he said last spring, showing typical perspective.

But the market for pitchers has changed since he signed, as best evidenced by the $105 million deal the Dodgers gave Kevin Brown last off-season.

Brown has 71 wins since the start of the 1995 season. Mussina has 79.

It's time to right that wrong, and the onus is on the Orioles to do right by their ace.

When Mussina signed his last deal, he did so without testing the free-agent market, and with the Orioles still holding to such financial principles as not giving pitchers long-term deals and not paying anyone more than Cal Ripken.

The resulting deal was labeled a "garden-variety" contract by players union president Don Fehr, and the Braves' Tom Glavine, in the midst of his own negotiations, said, "If [Mussina] wants to sell himself short, that's fine."

Mussina agreed to the terms, of course, so he can't complain. And to his credit, he hasn't -- unlike so many players who get layered over in the same way in baseball's steadily rising salary structure.

"I'm not going to sit around and pout about it," he told The Sun's Joe Strauss this spring.

In any case, the circumstances are different now, radically different. The Orioles have given up on the financial principles that were in effect for Mussina's deal. Scott Erickson signed a five-year contract last season, the longest deal for a pitcher in franchise history. And of course, Albert Belle signed his $65 million budget buster last winter, dwarfing the contracts given every other Oriole in history.

Mussina, 30, has done far more for the organization than either Erickson or Belle, but he refuses to play the martyr.

"I've been here my whole career and I'd love to stay my whole career," he told reporters at the All-Star Game last week. "It would take something quite unique for me even to consider leaving."

In other words, he still has no intention of testing the free-agent market and exercising the maximum amount of leverage he could. He's grew up in central Pennsylvania, he's happy pitching here, and that's what matters to him.

"I'm satisfied that I'll eventually get what I've earned," he said last spring.

Shame on the Orioles if they make any attempt to take advantage of a player for exhibiting such loyalty and overall common sense.

After giving so much money to so many wrong players, it's time to give what's deserved to the right player.

Not that Mussina is in a big hurry to have his old contract torn up and replaced. The club and his agent, Arn Tellem, have had preliminary talks, but Mussina will be that much more valuable if he goes on and wins 20 games this season -- a real possibility given his 13-4 record, the way he's pitching and the fact that there are still 10 weeks left in the season.

The right time for him to sign a new deal is during the coming off-season.

Oh, sure, the Orioles could play hardball, wait until after the current contract expires and wager that Mussina doesn't pitch as well in 2000, softening his bargaining position. But why would they want that to happen?

Let's face it, there are times when you just have to swallow and pay top dollar for top talent, and this is one of those times.

Mussina has always been a fine pitcher, as his five trips to the All-Star Game indicate, but he could be on the verge of reaching an even higher level. His one-inning performance in the 1999 All-Star Game, which ended with him striking out Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, was nothing if not a validation of his rising place among the game's elite.

Sure, there's always concern about giving long-term deals to pitchers, whose arms can go snap at any minute. The Orioles weren't wrong to avoid such deals before. And Mussina throws hard for someone so slender, seemingly elevating the risk of an injury.

But other than some shoulder soreness in the wake of the 1992 brawl with Seattle and a calcium deposit in his elbow in 1997, Mussina's injuries have been limited to freaks such as a wart on his index finger and a line drive off his forehead.

Basically, he's as sound as a champion thoroughbred that just keeps running.

If any Oriole deserves a headline-making contract, he's the one.

No, he's never had a 20-win season or won a Cy Young Award, but he's one of the few ace-caliber starters still throwing, and you can build a clubhouse around his formidable, old-school mental approach.

He isn't greedy, he wants to play here and he's at the peak of his powers. Don't mess with him. Don't let the negotiations drag, breeding ill will.

Mussina deserves better. When the time comes, just give him what he deserves.

Pub Date: 7/25/99

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