Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Mike Mussina retires on top

writes Allen Barra:
At Stanford, where Mr. Mussina earned a degree in economics -- and pitched in two College World Series -- he wrote a thesis on the wisdom of signing a professional baseball contract out of college rather than out of high school. Having mapped out his plan, he proceeded to follow it. After graduating in 1990, he was signed by the Orioles organization and pitched 10 years for Baltimore before choosing to go to the New York Yankees.

Last week, he made a choice, one that surprised fans and colleagues alike: After 18 years, and just two average seasons shy of the magic totals of 300 wins and 3,000 strikeouts, Mr. Mussina announced his retirement. Why, many wanted to know, did he hang it up so close to achieving numbers that would guarantee him the Hall of Fame? Did he simply do it his way?

Well, yes and no. As he told reporters last week: "People said to me, 'Make sure you do it for yourself.' But the truth is, every decision you make, there's other factors involved. I have young children . . . I'm not getting any younger, they're not getting any younger, and you can't get that time back. It's just the right time for me."

The announcement, when it came, was made by conference call -- neat, efficient and professional, just like everything else Mike Mussina has done in his career.

In truth, Mr. Mussina had known all season long that he would call it quits; he kept the secret from teammates and even Yankee executives because he did not want his retirement to "become the focal point of the season. It was like the last year of high school. You know it's going to end, and you just enjoy the ride." It's worth noting that Mr. Mussina was very nearly class valedictorian; rumors in his home town of Montoursville, Pa., are that he was just too shy to deliver a commencement speech.

His Yankee teammates were stunned to find out that Mr. Mussina, along with comic Jon Stewart, filmmaker Ken Burns and former President Bill Clinton, was a star of the 2006 documentary on crossword-puzzle enthusiasts, "Wordplay"; he never mentioned it to anyone, and most found out when they saw it on TV.


Rob Neyer, columnist for ESPN.com and author of "Baseball Legends," feels that "a year ago, there was only one argument against Mussina's Hall of Fame candidacy -- that he had never won 20 games. It wasn't a good argument. After all, he'd won 19 games twice, 18 games three times, and at least 15 games in 11 different seasons. Well, now he's blown that argument away by winning 20 games this past season." Not only did he win 20 games in 2008, but he became the oldest pitcher, at age 39, ever to do it for the first time.

Moose, as Yankees fans referred to him, became the first pitcher to win 20 games in his final season since Sandy Koufax did it in 1966. In fact, Mr. Mussina's career both compares and contrasts interestingly with that of the Dodgers' great Hall of Fame lefty. Mr. Koufax pitched for 12 seasons, averaging just under 14 wins a year, while Mr. Mussina pitched for 18, averaging 15 victories. But Mr. Koufax started at a low and ended with a high -- a 36-40 record his first six seasons and 129-47 the final six. Mr. Mussina was slightly better his first nine, 136-66, than the last nine, 134-87. Yet, for his career, he approached a similar level of greatness as Sandy.

Mike Mussina and Sandy Koufax have one other thing in common -- they both knew enough to quit when they were on top.

The Yankee fans never appreciated Moose, because they didn't perceive him as a winner. Ironically, he got less run support from his teammates than any other starting pitcher during his time here.

Now, they are going to keep Jeter and cut Abreu? I am almost feeling pity.

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