Bottom line: Mussina belonged here

May 04, 2001|By John Eisenberg

THE RATIONALIZATIONS have come leaking out of the Orioles camp at a quiet, steady pace in the seven months since Mike Mussina signed with the Yankees. He was whiny and selfish. He wouldn't attend the pitchers' meetings held before every series. He came out of too many games prematurely to compile 20 wins in a season. All he cared about was the money. He didn't deserve a No. 1 pitcher's salary.

Blah, blah, blah. What a pot of crocks.

Just like the stuff circulating on the talk shows and bulletin boards - that Mussina was spoiled because he never said thank you to the Orioles (as if they said thank you to him); that the shots he took at the organization upon leaving showed a lack of class; that he didn't have the patience to be the centerpiece of a rebuilding team.

As if any of that somehow means the Orioles are better off without him.

They aren't.

In no way is a team so starved for quality pitching better off without one of the game's premier starters. Not in the short term. Not in the long term. Never.

Anyone who thinks otherwise is either a) in denial, b) falling hard for the company line, or c) rooting for the Yankees.

Not that some of those complaints and criticisms aren't valid - Mussina wasn't and isn't perfect, as if anyone is. He certainly erred by not following through on his pledge to call Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos and give the only club he'd played for a final chance to match the Yankees' offer, not that that would have steered him back to Baltimore.

But that's just a footnote, a minor point of endgame semantics. Make no mistake, the headline on this story is that his return as a Yankee this weekend could have been avoided and should have been avoided, and the fact that it wasn't stands as a defining indictment of Angelos' Orioles.

Losing Roberto Alomar and Rafael Palmeiro also devastated the club on its way down from a division title in 1997, but Alomar wanted to leave and Palmeiro lived in Texas, where he ended up signing. Mussina was different, drafted by the Orioles, developed by the Orioles - an organizational lifer with ideas about ending his career here.

If the club had pursued him as aggressively as it pursued Albert Belle after the 1998 season, he never would have left. He would have pitched for the Orioles against the Yankees this weekend, instead of the other way around.

"There was a huge window of opportunity," Mussina told reporters before last night's game at Camden Yards. Two general managers, Pat Gillick and Frank Wren, advised making a contract extension for Mussina a priority in the late '90s. One club official said it was the next item on the agenda after Scott Erickson signed a 5-year deal in 1998.

"I thought, `Why not start talking then?' " said Mussina, who had signed a three-year deal after the 1997 season.

The Orioles could have signed him for five years and less than $40 million back then. How would that look now?

It never came close to happening, of course. Angelos has strong convictions about what a player who performs only once every five days is worth, and those convictions left him too far from what Mussina wanted - and what the pitcher ultimately fetched on the open market, by the way.

You could see where things were headed when the 2000 season opened without a new deal, and Mussina conceded yesterday that he knew he probably was headed elsewhere after July's purge of veterans. That he ended up with the Yankees just doubled the damage.

Those finding solace in the 2-3 record he will carry into Sunday's start are missing the point so completely that it boggles the mind. Mussina's slow start in 2001 doesn't justify Angelos' decision to let the Yankees outbid him. Nor would a loss at the hands of the Orioles in Sunday's game. That's one game, and his start is just one month out of a brilliant career.

Letting someone else sign Mussina will prove to be a good call only if he is washed up, finished, headed down a slope of losing records and high earned run averages - and anyone who saw him shut out the Twins on Tuesday night knows that's not the case. He's going to pitch well for the Yankees, just as he pitched well for the Orioles last season despite ending with a losing record for the first time.

The only remaining question mark is what kind of reaction he will hear when he is introduced Sunday - and the guess here is a blend of cheers from the fans who respect what he did here and boos from the fans who can't get past him defecting to the enemy, regardless of the circumstances. Either response is reasonable and acceptable. He deserves the show of respect. He also plays for the Yankees now.

But you might not want to exhaust your supply of boos on the pitcher who fronted the Orioles' staff with class for a decade and, by all rights, should still be wearing the team's uniform.

If you have any doubts about the current state of the organization, you might want to hold a few boos in reserve and use them on the front office that had plenty of chances to sign Mussina and wasted every one.

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