Mike Mussina retired nine years ago, on Nov. 20 in 2008. The 2018 Hall of Fame ballots go out on Nov. 20. I don't know if there is some symbolism attached to all that or not. But Mike Mussina belongs in the Hall of Fame. I have written this before, and now I'm writing it again, because Mussina, in his own quiet and professional and immensely talented way, was not just one of the great pitchers of his time. He is one of the great pitchers of all time.
There will always be the back-and-forth shout about those like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, and whether their use of performance-enhancing drugs should continue to keep them out of Cooperstown. That debate will go on for as long as the two of them are on the ballots, and maybe after they have made it to Cooperstown. But underneath that shout, as always, is the quiet candidacy of Mussina. There was never any controversy about him. He just pitched, all the way until he won 20 with the Yankees in his last season and then dropped the mic -- no pun intended -- and went home for good.
"He never, and I mean never, would have been able to hang around and be 9-10 just to pick up a couple more big paychecks," Buck Showalter was saying on Thursday night. "That's not who he is."
Mike Mussina belongs in the Hall of Fame because he had a record of 270-153 and won 18 three times and won 19 twice and finally won 20 in '08. He had one losing season as a starter. He won more than 15 games nine times. He had a lifetime earned run average of 3.68 and compiled all of these numbers in the thick of the steroid era in a DH league, and in the meat grinder that was and is the American League East. He had the career he had, as a pitcher's pitcher, at Oriole Park at Camden Yards with the Orioles and then at Yankee Stadium after the Yankees signed him as a free agent. He did this pitching as an opponent, at Fenway Park.
"Think about it: That division, those ballparks, DHs, thinking that maybe every other hitter might be on steroids," Showalter said. "Are you ----ing kidding me?" And Buck only ever managed against the guy.
Mike Mussina belongs in the Hall of Fame even if there were other more famous and more glamorous pitchers in his time, even if he pitched when Clemens pitched and Randy Johnson pitched, and Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, and an artist named Pedro Martinez. Again: He was a gifted and reliable starter over nearly two decades. And when there came the night when Joe Torre brought him out of the bullpen, Game 7 of the 2003 AL Championship Series, Yankees against the Red Sox, and asked Mussina to help save that Yankee season, Mussina came out of the bullpen and was great that night.
Everybody still talks about the three innings of relief that Mariano Rivera pitched out of the bullpen at old Yankee Stadium before Aaron Boone hit one of the most famous October home runs in Yankee history. But there is no game for Mo Rivera to win against the Red Sox that night if not for Mussina picking up Clemens, the starter for Torre that night, the way he did. Three shutout innings for Mussina, two hits, three strikeouts. You know what Rivera did later? He did the exact same thing: Three shutout innings, two hits, three strikeouts. In a historic game when the greatest closer in baseball history pitched the way he did, Mussina was as great. He just did what he did in the fourth and fifth and sixth.
But don't just listen to me. Listen to Buck, who knows as much about baseball as anybody in this world. Listen to him talk about Mussina:
"He was the ultimate pitcher. You'd sit there and watch him and see him almost invent pitches as he went along. He had a hand that could make baseballs do exactly what he wanted them to do. And you'd go, 'Wait a second, did he just get his cutter to do that, on that count? Did he just throw a batting-practice fastball and get a guy to roll over a ground ball to the second baseman?'
"Somehow he was able to manipulate not just the ball, but the strike zone, too. No matter how much you scouted him, he would always find a way to show you something different, with his fastball or his cutter or his changeup. Pitchers will understand what I'm saying: Mike would create his own zone. I swear, I'd watch him sometimes and think he was like a conductor out there, just with earplugs in, impervious to whatever noise was going on around him. The only way I can put it is that he didn't hear the music of the game as much as feel it. He had that kind of feeling for throwing a baseball.
"There have been a lot of smart pitchers. And a lot of high-IQ pitchers. But there's a difference between that and being bright. Mike Mussina on a pitcher's mound was just incredibly bright. I'll tell you something else: Big market, small market, it never mattered to him. He just didn't care. Just give him the ball."
Again: Mussina did what he did in that time, in that division, in those ballparks. In what will always be known as the steroid era. The Yankees signed him to a big free-agent contract -- at the time -- for six years for $89 million. And at the end of a pitching contract that long, guess what? The Yankees put two more years on top of that. And, by the way? When he got to the postseason, he pitched exactly the way he had always pitched. His win-loss record was 7-8, but so much of that is tied up in the vagaries of October. Just look at his ERA::
In Division Series, ERA was 3.60.
In League Championship Series, ERA was 3.34.
In the World Series, ERA was 3.00.
Once again this year, there will be enough people who will act as if the world might stop spinning on its axis if Bonds and Clemens aren't elected to the Hall. Mussina was just south of both of them last year, with 51.8 percent of the vote. Bonds and Clemens were the headliners then, are headliners again. All the trends say they will eventually make it to Cooperstown someday. So should Mike Mussina. All he ever took was the ball.