Mussina in command

Orioles: The staff's ace shows his usual pinpoint control whether he's talking about his contract status, an elusive 20-win season or his relationship with any number of pitching coaches.

March 09, 2000|By JOE STRAUSS | JOE STRAUSS,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE — FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- It's another "red light" day in Mike Mussina's Neighborhood, meaning that if there's been progress in his talks about a contract extension for the Orioles' most dominant pitcher of the past decade, it hasn't reached his ears.

And that's just fine with Mussina.

"I've got all day, but the clock's running," he says, answering an interview request while dropping an obvious double entendre.

In the past five years, Mussina has more wins than Kevin Brown, a lower ERA than Andy Pettitte, more innings pitched than Randy Johnson, more shutouts than Curt Schilling and more complete games than David Cone, Roger Clemens or John Smoltz. What he doesn't have is a 20-win season, a World Series ring or a market-value contract -- say, $84 million over six years.

Mussina says he couldn't care less about 20 wins. His 18 wins last season were enough to make him runner-up to Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez, the only active pitcher with a superior career winning percentage to Mussina's .673. The ring? We'll have to wait and see. The Orioles will first have to find a starter other than Mussina who can win a game this April, something they couldn't do until last April 30.

But whether Orioles officials admit it or not, Mussina's contract status represents the centerpiece for the franchise's future. Cal Ripken turns 40 in August. There might be an entirely new infield next season. And the Orioles now know the 23 teams to which B. J. Surhoff can be traded.

"They've got a lot of decisions to make," says Mussina. "What about Bordy [shortstop Mike Bordick], C. J. [catcher Charles Johnson]? What's Cal going to do? There's a lot to digest."

At 31, Mussina asks tough questions befitting the self-assured stereotype of a Stanford alum. His humor is wry, biting, even sarcastic, an acquired but satisfying taste to those familiar with him but sometimes off-putting and intimidating to those merely passing through. His insight can burn. His curt media performance during the 1997 American League Championship Series remains almost as legendary as his scintillating on-field performance against the Cleveland Indians.

League officials begged Mussina to be more accommodating. Given what he considered a verbal backhand to his question, one writer said, "I hope you tear your rotator cuff to shreds."

No worry. Mussina's arm is fine. Meanwhile, his comfort zone has expanded, at least with local media. This year is going to be fun, he insists, if for no other reason than it can't be as miserable as last.

Following the dismissal of pitching coach Bruce Kison, Mussina perceives a more pitcher-friendly tutor in Sammy Ellis.

But the Orioles' rotation has long been known as a tough bunch. They spit out pitching coaches like sunflower seeds, even in good times, and make no apologies for it.

Scott Erickson was asked during the 1996 ALCS his thoughts on pitching coach Pat Dobson, whom he and Mussina had battled throughout the season.

"Next question," replied Erickson.

Mussina does not consider himself an insurrectionist. Like other pitching elites, he most appreciates being left alone unless he senses a problem.

"If I believe I need to make an adjustment, I'll make it. If I need to change something, I'll change it," he says. "I find it difficult in any situation to have someone jump in and say, `Your way's not right. My way's better.' I'm certainly more skeptical if that's their initial approach. Four or five years ago, I probably would have listened if somebody had said, `You'll be a better pitcher if you do this,' instead of [replying], `This is the way I pitch.' "

As Orioles pitching coach in 1995 and 1998, the more laid-back Mike Flanagan enjoyed a solid relationship with his rotation, especially Mussina. Both are cerebral men just as comfortable discussing modern literature as a circle changeup. Flanagan isn't ashamed to say he has learned from Mussina just as Mussina still feels comfortable approaching Flanagan.

Flanagan says Mussina "knows himself extremely well" and is the "antithesis of high-maintenance."

Ellis has already made the savvy move of seeking his veterans' input while devising his spring training program.

"We're not here to fight with these guys," was how Ellis put it during camp's formative days.

Hardened by history

Recent history has hardened Mussina professionally. He has seen seven pitching coaches come and go in the past seven years. He has developed an additional two pitches but also been disabled the past two seasons by line drives that ripped open his forehead and tattooed his pitching shoulder.

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