Sitting before a New York Yankees banner while he wore a Yankees warm-up jersey in a Camden Yards auxiliary clubhouse, Mike Mussina looked very much at home away from home yesterday afternoon. Probably because he was.
Mussina made his first appearance in a place he refused to consider "foreign territory" for the first time since signing a six-year, $88.5 million contract as a free agent last November. Scheduled to make Sunday's start against the team for whom he won 147 games in 10 seasons, Mussina offered many of the same mannerisms, said many of the same things and reflected on many of the same circumstances that became ingrained on Orioles fans during his productive stay and ultimately painful departure.
"I haven't been that far removed from it. It's just the second month of the season. It's still pretty familiar to me," said Mussina before hustling to a pitchers' meeting. "I could never say this is foreign territory. That's a pretty harsh statement for somebody who played here 10 years.
"It's a familiar setting, a place where I got to pitch a lot. I'm just coming out of the dugout now wearing the grays instead of wearing the whites."
On Sunday, Mussina will leave the third-base dugout to pitch against his former team. Once committed to pitching his entire career here, he didn't need to be reminded of the potentially split reaction that awaits him.
On Wednesday night, Mussina witnessed a nasty Metrodome crowd turn on New York left fielder Chuck Knoblauch, who demanded out of Minnesota before being traded to the Yankees in 1998. It took a 12-minute stoppage and intervention by Twins manager Tom Kelly to calm the mob.
While Mussina said he anticipates none of that from Baltimore's classy baseball fans, he would never deny the ingrained resentment that sprouts locally for anything in pinstripes.
"I don't foresee anything getting thrown at me in the middle of the field. That's a little far to heave something," said Mussina. "I have to warm right next to the people in the picnic area. It doesn't take too many people screaming down on you to hear them, especially in that close proximity.
"Like I said, I play for the Yankees. People who have grown up in Baltimore their whole lives can't stand the Yankees. Whether I've played here 10 years or 30 years, I'm playing for the Yankees now."
Yankees manager Joe Torre experienced something similar after being traded from the Atlanta Braves to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1969.
"I went back to Atlanta and thought I would receive a cheer, but received a jeer instead," he remembered. "It was eight or 10 games before I got going again. I don't see that happening with Mike. He's a smart guy. I look at Mike Mussina the person. I think he was up front with people and they appreciate that. They might not like that he's not here. But he wasn't underhanded about it."
Mussina is 2-3 coming off Tuesday's three-hit shutout of the Twins. He has so far received indifferent run support. Not everything has changed.
Sunday will be "a little bit of everything," he said. "People have asked me this question since the season opened: What's it going to be like going back to Baltimore? It's going to be a little bit of both sides. It's a Yankees series. It's a high-tension series even without me being on the Yankee side now."
Mussina addressed the fog of negotiations that preceded his defection to a place he once considered the most distasteful outpost in the league, a place where his hotel room held him hostage except to go back and forth to Yankee Stadium.
Tracing his failed negotiations from the Orioles signing Scott Erickson to a five-year, $32 million extension in May 1998 to the halting progress that frustrated him in 1999 and 2000, Mussina said it became obvious by last August that he and the club were headed in different directions.
"In the midst of the summer when all the trades were made, I started coming to the understanding," said Mussina. "When you trade one or two people, it's one thing. When you trade six, it's something else."
The clubhouse purge compounded Mussina's frustration with talks that appeared to be accelerating in March only to bog down by April. Before it was done, Mussina refused to waive his no-trade clause, thus denying the Orioles a potentially lucrative package of players in a deal that could have sent Mussina to a contender.
"Why not talk then if that's what your future plans are? I saw the same situation with [Rafael] Palmeiro, the same situation with [Roberto] Alomar. It just kept going on and on," said Mussina.
"It got to last year, and in the back of my mind I knew it wasn't going to be over in spring training, it wasn't going to be over in June. They were going to let it play out. And they did. The Yankees or any other club had no opportunity to talk to me until the free-agency window opened. But the team you play for can talk to you any time you want.
"It's not something that happened at the end. It got drawn out that far."
It ended after majority owner Peter Angelos upgraded a five-year, $50 million offer to $78 million over six years with $18 million deferred without interest. The Orioles ended up among "a group of teams trying to catch up to the Yankees"
That, too, hasn't changed. Just as Mussina insists he has lost none of the affinity for a town, a ballpark and the fans who served as a counterbalance to ultimately fruitless negotiations.
"Through all the ups and downs, I enjoyed every year here. It was great," said Mussina. "I always said I wanted to finish here if things worked out. But it didn't work out, so I'm going to play awhile in New York."