For a smart guy, Mussina should have degree of tact


The Kickoff

February 26, 2007|By Murray Chass | Murray Chass,THE NEW YORK TIMES

Mike Mussina graduated from Stanford and is supposed to be an intelligent guy, but every once in a while he doesn't act that way.

A few years ago, when the New York Yankees were opening the season in Japan, Mussina resented that the team had to make that trip and let everyone know it. He didn't stop complaining, and he proceeded to have a mediocre season, probably his worst, and there was a feeling he got himself into a mental rut over the trip and never emerged from it.

More recently, earlier this month, Mussina publicly expressed his views about his teammate, Carl Pavano, who missed the past season and a half with a bizarre series of injuries and gave Mussina and other members of the Yankees the feeling he was too cavalier about his rehabilitation.

Mussina, the Yankees' senior starting pitcher, let Pavano have it.

"It didn't look good," he said of Pavano's lengthy hiatus, speaking to reporters at the Yankees' camp in Tampa, Fla. "From a player's perspective and a teammate's perspective, it didn't look good."

Two weeks earlier at a dinner in New York, Mussina told reporters: "I think he has to pitch and do his job and be the guy again. He needs to earn the trust from the players, the coaches, the manager and the organization."

Mussina was right on every count. But he was talking to the wrong people. He should have made those comments to Pavano.

With 16 years in the major leagues, Mussina has been around long enough to know how to handle a problem like the one Pavano presented. It's the sort of thing players deal with best among themselves, certainly leaving reporters out of it.

As a reporter, I have heard my share of criticism from players about other players. Some reporters live to be the recipients of such comments, and some newspapers can't wait to splash them on their pages.

Two years ago, New York reporters visiting the Boston Red Sox camp made a daily practice of asking leading questions about Alex Rodriguez, the Yankees' lightning rod, trying to get Red Sox players to criticize him. For the most part, the players avoided making inflammatory comments, but simply by responding they gave the reporters ammunition.

Going back even further, in the Yankees' clubhouse of the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was no more volatile mix than Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson. Throw in a dash of Graig Nettles, a soupcon of Sparky Lyle and a few cups of George Steinbrenner, and the mix could be instantly combustible.

Players complained that reporters were the cause of the clubhouse conflagrations - some even credited the New York newspaper strike of 1978 with enabling the Yankees to make their memorable comeback against the Red Sox - but it was the players who sought out reporters to express their sentiments about this player or that manager.

It's not likely Mussina's comments of the past few weeks will lead to any intramural bickering among the Yankees. Too many players feel the same way about Pavano that Mussina does. But that likelihood doesn't absolve Mussina of misguided behavior.

It would have been far more appropriate for Mussina to confront Pavano face-to-face or for Mussina and Derek Jeter, the team captain, to take Pavano aside to tell him how everyone felt.

"You always prefer to keep things in house when possible," general manager Brian Cashman said. "We talk to our players a great deal about this. We tell them you can speak your mind at all times, but be aware of how it might resonate."

Mussina's comments did lead to a meeting between the two pitchers, though it was Pavano who initiated it. Mussina said he apologized to Pavano for criticizing him to reporters instead of doing it face-to-face.

"It looks like something good came from his comments," Cashman said. "He and Carl got together and had a chance to talk it out."

They could have achieved the same end had Mussina gone to Pavano in the first place.

For all of the doubts Mussina and others might have had about Pavano and his string of injuries, the one aspect of his absence that should not have raised questions was the injury he suffered to his ribs in an automobile accident last August just when he seemed ready to return.

It's quite possible that neither Mussina nor any other Yankees pitcher in Pavano's position - on the verge of pitching again after more than a year's absence - would have told the Yankees that he had been injured again. If Pavano could have pitched with the ailing ribs, he was going to do it.

And that, in itself, should have told Mussina something about Pavano, that he wanted to pitch so badly that he was going to hide an injury. Mussina, however, ignored the sign and instead thought worse of Pavano. Oh well, his Stanford degree was in economics, not in psychology.

Murray Chass writes for The New York Times.

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