Down deep, talks weigh on Mussina?

May 11, 2000|By John Eisenberg

Maybe Mike Mussina would have a 1-4 record and a 4.78 earned run average without being in the middle of protracted contract negotiations determining his baseball future.

Maybe he wouldn't be experiencing the first real slump of his career if he were in, say, the second year of a five-year deal instead of the last year of a deal he signed in 1998.

Maybe his up-in-the-air future with the Orioles has nothing to do with his present struggles. Maybe it's all technical, a result of problems with location and pitch counts or whatever.

Then again, maybe not.

Maybe the uncertainty is harming Mussina's season, and thus, the Orioles' season, as well.

Maybe the Orioles' failure to lock up their ace to a contract extension is causing more problems than anyone envisioned.

Mussina would never agree; he's a pro's pro renowned for being prepared, focused and mentally tough. Immune to distractions, basically.

But at the risk of committing amateur psychology, it can happen without the player even being aware of it.

Remember when Mickey Tettleton became a local hero in 1989 and struck out so many times a year later, with his contract up, that the Orioles traded him to Detroit?

"Looking back, the contract stuff was a concern," Tettleton said later. (P.S.: He went on to hit 171 homers for Detroit and Texas over the next seven seasons. )

Maybe Mussina's uncertain status is more of a problem, subliminally or otherwise, than even he realizes.

Remember, he's a creature of routine, a small-town guy who likes what's familiar and comfortable.

Wondering if he might be pitching for the Indians next year isn't familiar and comfortable.

Granted, more players tend to respond 180 degrees differently, delivering big in the last year of their old contract to make sure their new contract is even better. It's called increasing your leverage, an old baseball fundamental you don't hear much about.

But Mussina doesn't need any more leverage. He already has more than enough, courtesy of the second-highest career winning percentage among active right-handers with at least 50 decisions..

That's kind of the problem, actually. For almost a decade now, Mussina, 31, has taken the ball every fifth day and pitched about as consistently and effectively as any major-leaguer, and in a homer-happy home park, no less. ("I never knew how awful pitching in Camden Yards was until I left," former Orioles closer Gregg Olson said recently.)

Then, the last time his contract was up, he accepted a below-market deal because, he said, he "couldn't imagine pitching anywhere else."

That's the kind of loyal soldiering, on and off the field, that warrants a big contract in return. Mussina deserves it not just for what he already has done, but also for what he's going to do, current woes notwithstanding.

But how have the Orioles responded? By starting with a five-year, $50million offer that obviously wasn't enough, and then upping the deal to five years and $60million, still well below what Mussina probably would get on the open market after this season.

Instead of giving Mussina what he deserves, squashing any fermenting distrust, eliminating the chances of him leaving and clearing his head of a monster distraction, the Orioles are making him fight for his money.

And Mussina, a smart guy with a clear-headed sense of right and wrong, knows it isn't right.

Maybe he can put it all aside when he's on the mound and concentrate on his craft, as he always has done.

But maybe he can't.

Maybe it's adding a major distraction at a time when he's struggling with his craft and doesn' t need any extra problems.

Granted, a big-money contract negotiation is a slow, complicated process, and in many cases, the two sides have to start at opposite ends and work their way to the middle. That's the stage Mussina's talks are in now.

But on the other hand, the Orioles have no choice. Whether or not they realize it, they have to sign Mussina. No ifs, buts or asterisks. No extenuating circumstances.

Why not just do it? With quality pitching in such demand these days, an ace is a rare commodity as valuable as any in the game. If you have one, you don't let him go. You make him happy. You lock him up.

You don't hassle and distract him.

Of course, this is the same club that played hardball for nine months with Rafael Palmeiro and then showered money on Albert Belle, losing Palmeiro in the process; the same club that chose to alienate Charles Johnson rather than meet in the middle of a $500,000 dispute, a pittance in today's baseball economy.

To be kind, they obviously have their own ways and means in such situations.

But they're going to lose fans if they lose Mussina, and worst of all, they're going to lose games, too.

In fact, maybe they are already.

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