Mussina: This Bomber is ready to face the flak

Former Orioles ace expects vocal reaction in Oriole Park return

May 03, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

No doubt, former Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina still has a lot of fans in the Baltimore area, but at times like these, it must be nice to have phonetics on your side.

The "Moose" returns to Camden Yards today for the first time since he filed for free agency and jumped to the rival New York Yankees. He isn't scheduled to pitch until the finale of the four-game series on Sunday, but he figures to get a strong reaction from the fans every time he steps onto the field for pre-game warm-ups or shows up in a dugout shot on the scoreboard video screen.

What kind of reaction may be subject to interpretation, because it will be difficult to tell whether the fans are booing or mooing.

"I think there will be a little bit of everything," Mussina said last week in New York. "It's the Yankees. That series is a pretty high-tension thing already, so I expect a little bit of everything."

There is plenty to cheer about. Mussina was the cornerstone of the Orioles' starting rotation for nine seasons, quickly establishing himself as one of the top pitchers in the game after the club made him its top draft choice out of Stanford in 1990.

He will go down in history as one of the greatest pitchers in club history and was a solid citizen throughout his Orioles career.

There also is something to boo about, if fans are so inclined. Mussina could have stayed in Baltimore if he had been willing to accept about $10 million less than the $88.5 million guarantee he received from the Yankees - and been willing to gut out the club's rebuilding effort.

It's probably a little more complicated than that, because the value of the Orioles' offer was reduced by a significant salary deferral, but, to the average fan, $78 million is a lot of money no matter how you slice it.

Whether Mussina went for the money or for the chance to play for the three-time defending world champions or even for the chance to one-up Orioles owner Peter Angelos after months of unsuccessful contract negotiations, it's all subject to the individual and collective interpretation of the fans.

Mussina still is getting acclimated to his new surroundings. He wowed Yankees fans in his debut performance on April 5 at Yankee Stadium, giving up five hits over 7 2/3 innings and combining with closer Mariano Rivera on a 1-0 victory over the Kansas City Royals.

"That was nice," Mussina said. "I was hoping to come out and throw well, but I could have thrown well and still lost. To throw well enough to win a 1-0 game in your first game of the year was exciting."

The results have been mixed since then. He is 2-3 with a 3.73 ERA and has pitched into the seventh inning in five of his first six regular-season starts, but has surrendered four or more earned runs three times.

His last start, however, looked a lot like his first of the year. He went into the cozy Metrodome in Minneapolis on Tuesday night and handcuffed the surprising Twins, giving up just three hits in his first complete-game shutout since he one-hit the Twins as an Oriole on Aug. 1.

One thing hasn't changed with the new uniform. Mussina still is not getting generous offensive support.

The Yankees have scored a total of 21 runs in his six starts - an average of just 3.5 - but there really has been just one loss (April 16 at Boston) in which soft run support was a major factor.

Mussina has been a little inconsistent. He pitched one game with a case of the flu. He had a little bad luck in another. But he has been, by and large, the same pitcher he was in Baltimore. The only difference is his surroundings.

New York certainly is a different place than Baltimore, but Mussina said in a recent interview that culture shock has not been a problem.

He bought a home in suburban Westchester County and is waiting for his family to arrive for the summer. The layout, he said, is similar to the home he lived in near Baltimore.

"The drive is a little farther," he said. "Besides that, everything is pretty much the same."

And he has fit into the star-studded Yankee Stadium clubhouse with no apparent difficulty.

"I've only been in one other clubhouse," Mussina said. "It's hard to compare them, one against the other. The guys I get to work with here are a great group of people.

"But the '96 and '97 teams in Baltimore I think were very, very talented. I think we had some talent in other years, too, but things didn't work out because of injuries or strikes or other circumstances.

"The real difference between this team and that is how much playoff experience these guys have and how much success they have had. Any major-league clubhouse you go into is going to have a lot of talent, but this group has accomplished a lot of things with that talent."

That's one of the reasons that Mussina was seduced by the prospect of playing in pinstripes - something he never imagined himself doing before the Yankees made a big play for him in November.

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