Wrong place, wrong time: Mussina’s woes of fate

Hunter Atkins

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By no means was Mike Mussina a member of the Mudville Nine, but for a pitcher as talented as any to take the mound during the 1990s and 2000s, he had many close-but-no-cigar moments.

Mussina has never been in the graces of fate, who has a funny way of picking who she wants to be in the right place at the right time.

There are some upon whom fate dons this gift, a la Mr. November, Derek Jeter. There are some who are transformed in an instant from scrub to legend. For the first 26 years of his life, Russell Earl O’Dey was unknown. After his improbable three-run homer helped the Yankees edge out the Red Sox for the 1978 division title, he was immortalized in Boston as Bucky “F’ing” Dent.

Then there are those who fate teases, the players who have all the gifts in the world and seem to be on their way to glory, only to look back and see how often they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Let the story of Mussina begin.

He debuted as a late call-up in 1991 for an Orioles team that ended the year 24 games out of first place. It was a waste of a 4-5, 2.87 ERA beginning for Mussina, who would have run away with the Rookie of the Year award the following season – he went 18-5 with a 2.54 ERA – had he not surpassed the minimum innings limit in ’91.

From 1996-2000, the Yankees won four championships in five years. Mussina cashed in by signing with New York in 2001, but missed the boat. Out were the soft-spoken workmen that were a signature of the ’90s Yankees dynasty, and in were a group of individual stars unfamiliar with winning. What seemed to be a more talented extension of the cohesive dynasty turned out to be a squad as organic as McNuggets.

The Yankees lost on a walk-off single in game seven of the World Series that year, marking the end of an era for the team and the beginning of an era of for Mussina, who would reach the playoffs eight out of the next nine seasons, including a second shot at the World Series in 2003, but would head home each October without a championship ring.

The span of Mussina’s career can itself be said to have occurred at the wrong place and during the wrong time. Mussina won 270 games against the deepest, most formidable hitting lineups in baseball history. In addition to facing steroid-abusing sluggers, Mussina pitched in the AL East for the better part of two decades. It was a division composed of offensive juggernauts and pitchers’ graveyards year after year. We do not have to bend spacetime to figure Mussina would be closer to pitching’s Holy Grail of 300 wins had he spent a few years facing weaker opponents in the National League; think Randy Johnson.There is no quicker way to achieve pitching immortality than to throw a perfect game. While few have done it, some of these few had rather unremarkable careers. Don Larsen remains the only pitcher to ever throw a perfect game in postseason history. He also lost 21 games in a season. Mussina was within one strike of being only the 16th pitcher to achieve perfection, before a single by Red Sox pinch-hitter Carl Everett left a smudge in the box score.

In terms of awards and milestones, Mussina comes up short. He didn’t win 20 games, the benchmark for single-season success, until last year. However, it would only be fitting for Mussina that in his best year with the Yankees – his final year – it would also be the first time in 14 years that the team would not reach the playoffs.

While it seems Mussina has been victimized by fate, retiring was a decision left in his own hands, one that clearly was made at the wrong time. Finishing on a high note came at an unprecedented cost to Mussina. Almost a month after Mussina announced his retirement, the Yankees began a $480 million spending spree in reaction to their less-than-stellar season. The expenditure eclipsed the memory of the mediocre pitching staff Mussina carried to a near-playoff berth. Were he to hold on just one more season, Mussina would be in the middle of a fearsome rotation and pitching this week with his best shot at a World Series ring in six years.

For baseball junkies, Mussina leads a water cooler-chat category: The Greatest “Non-Great” Players of All-Time. While this category heading is amusing, he does have a legitimate shot at being a part of a more serious class. Baseball writers can right the wrongs of fate by inducting Mussina into the Hall of Fame. Considering he pitched excellently in a five-man rotation, against the most prodigious hitters and with the smallest strike-zone ever implemented, his performance speaks volumes.

For the man who came so close so often, give Mussina a plaque in Cooperstown and let him light up a stogie in celebration.

Assistant sports editor Hunter Atkins is a Medill junior. He can be reached at hatkins@u.northwestern.edu.