Could Mussina make tracks back to O's? Don't bank on it

The Kickoff

June 05, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

Mike Mussina is coming to the end of the huge contract he signed with the Yankees before the 2001 season, and - at least theoretically - could be back on the open market if the Yankees don't exercise their $17 million club option for 2007.

So, could the 37-year-old Moose be the No. 1 starter the Orioles have been looking for since the 31-year-old Moose bolted the club during a touchy set of contract negotiations with owner Peter Angelos?

The short answer is, probably not, but we can dream, can't we?

Mussina has chosen a good time to get off to one of the best starts of his career, which - if he follows through with a solid summer - almost certainly will persuade the Yankees to offer an acceptable extension. The prospect of trying to maximize his value as a free agent apparently has not even crossed his mind.

"Are you crazy?" he said after Friday night's game.

Even though I assured him that I am mentally impaired enough to think it would be a good idea to finish his career in Baltimore, he explained why he isn't the least bit interested in escaping from New York.

"I've got a chance to be in the playoffs every year," he said. "I'm going to be 38 years old. What else is there?"

Mussina is 7-1 with a 2.42 ERA after a pair of so-so seasons that precluded any serious talk of an extension this spring. Manager Joe Torre says the sharp upturn in his performance is no accident.

"He left spring training with a little more arm strength," Torre explained. "Last year, he didn't have the same fastball he did this spring. He made a conscious decision to try and build it up and came right out of the box with it."

Torre also feels that Mussina has assumed more of a dynamic role in the Yankees' rotation.

"Since about a year ago, with the stuff that Randy [Johnson] was going through, Moose sensed that Randy could use a little help," Torre said. "He took on a much bigger role as far as leadership."

If you feel cheated because Mussina wasn't scheduled to pitch in this weekend's series at Camden Yards, you can see him on the big screen when Wordplay opens at the Charles Theatre soon.

The independent film about puzzle master Will Shortz and the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and features interviews with celebrity crossword aficionados.

Mussina has long done a crossword as part of his pre-game routine.

Former Oriole Scott Erickson plunked Jeff Conine during Friday night's game, but I can't imagine there was any bad blood between them. If you recall, they were the two veteran players who temporarily escaped from New York with Sidney Ponson on the infamous Metallica concert trip six years ago.

Erstwhile Orioles playoff villain Jeffrey Maier has been getting a lot of ink lately because he has an outside chance to be drafted after setting some offensive records at Division III Wesleyan in Connecticut.

When the possibility of Maier being drafted was brought up to Torre, he couldn't resist.

"What branch of the service?" he replied. "I'm just kidding. I've heard he's doing well."

Maier was 12 when he deflected a Derek Jeter fly ball away from outfielder Tony Tarasco and into the stands for a tying home run in Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series.

"We got lucky," Torre said, "and he's gotten plenty of notoriety."

The Orioles lost that game but came back to win Game 2 and send the ALCS back to Baltimore even up, but Torre doesn't necessarily buy into the notion that they would have won the series if Maier had not intervened in the late innings of the opener.

"They won Game 2 and came home with the momentum and we still beat them," he said. "It was uncanny for us that year. We won every game here and every game in Cleveland [during the Division Series]. It was nuts."

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

"The Peter Schmuck Show" airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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