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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #32 Mike Mussina

After starting his career with rival Baltimore, “Moose” signed with New York as a free agent and excelled in pinstripes.

Yankees Media Day X

Full Name: Michael Cole Mussina
Position: Starting Pitcher
Born: December 8, 1968 (Montoursville, PA)
Yankee Years: 2001-08
Primary number: 35
Yankee statistics: 123-72, 3.88 ERA, 87 ERA-, 3.50 FIP, 248 GS, 1553 IP, 12 CG, 1278 K, 35.1 rWAR, 34.6 fWAR

Biography

In many ways, the story of Mike Mussina is one of “almost,” and “so close.” Over the course of his Hall of Fame career, which began in Baltimore as a 22-year-old and ended in New York 17 years later, “Moose” just missed out on numerous milestones and achievements, both personal and team.

While in Baltimore, he finished in the top-six of American League Cy Young Award voting seven times. Then, he came to New York and in his first season, despite leading the American League in rWAR, finished fifth. That campaign also saw him come within one out of throwing what would have been the fourth perfect game in Yankee history.

Worst of all, his first season in the Bronx culminated in a crushing seven-game loss to Arizona in the World Series, the closest Mussina would get to a ring in his career. In his final season, after winning 20 games for the first time, he finished sixth in Cy voting. And the year after he retired, the Yankees won a World Series.

Ultimately, he pitched in the Bronx for eight seasons and in so doing, became the first American League hurler to win at least 10 games in 17 consecutive seasons. He won seven Gold Gloves, three of them with New York, and got down-ballot votes for AL MVP in his final season. He retired just prior to his 40th birthday with 270 victories, leaving a tantalizing question of if, had he wanted to pitch at least a couple more seasons, he could have made it to the immortal 300-win milestone.

Early Life

Michael Cole Mussina, born in small-town Montoursville, Pennsylvania, was the first-born child of parents Malcom and Eleanor. Four years after Mike’s birth, his brother Mark joined the family. As of 2016, the entire family remains in Montoursville, as Mike returned there after his retirement from the Yankees.

It feels like I write something akin the following about every entry on this list, but it was apparent from a young age that the child who would go on to a Hall of Fame career was an innate athlete. By the age of three, Mussina was able to throw a perfect spiral, with his father noting that no one taught young Mike how.

At the age of eight, Mussina got his first taste of organized baseball when he began playing Little League. That’s also when, due to the similarity in pronunciation with his last name, that Mike was first dubbed “Moose,” a moniker that stuck with him for the remainder of his career.

By high school, Mussina was a prodigy on the mound. His senior year, he led the Montoursville High School Warriors to a state championship, winning 24 games with a 0.87 ERA. Twice during his time at Montoursville High he was named the Pennsylvania State Player of the Year, while also playing football and basketball and finishing with the fourth-highest GPA in his graduating class.

Interestingly, rumors persisted for years that Mussina intentionally finished outside of the top three, all of whom had to speak at graduation. That at least seems on brand for Mussina, who was a pretty noted introvert as a pro ballplayer who would rather do crosswords than make headlines off the field.

Path to the Pros

Mike Mussina at Stanford
Mussina at Stanford
Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

Several MLB teams, including the Orioles, had their eyes on Mussina coming out of high school. But it was a poorly-kept secret that Moose was headed to college. Nonetheless, Baltimore selected him in the 11th round of the 1987 MLB Draft. But after Mussina communicated how disinterested he was in signing, the O’s never even bothered to make him an offer.

So Moose was off across the country on a partial scholarship to Stanford University. Years later he recounted that his decision was due to two factors. One, there was a familial expectation that he’d head to college. Moreover, he had considered his quality of life. “Did I want to spend three or four years riding buses around in the minor leagues, staying in little towns in lousy hotels, or did I want to have the chance to experience college while playing baseball at the same time? To me, it was a no-brainer.”

For Baltimore, Mussina was a case of ‘if at first you don’t succeed…” After an All-American junior season, he was once again draft-eligible and in the 1990 Amateur Draft the Orioles called his name again. This time, it was with the 20th pick of the first round. A reported $225,000 signing bonus later and Mussina found himself headed straight to Double-A as Baltimore aggressively pushed their young right-hander.

By the end of 1990, Mussina was already at Triple-A and finished his first taste of professional ball with a combined 1.46 ERA at two levels over 55.2 innings. He began the 1991 campaign back at Triple-A but he would not be there long. Almost four years younger than the average International League player, Moose racked up 10 wins with a 2.87 ERA before Baltimore called him up.

A Moose Among Birds

Moose made his debut on July 31, 1991, against the Chicago White Sox and quickly put the American League on notice that it had a new ace to contend with. The lone hit he surrendered over 7.2 frames happened to be a dinger to fellow future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas, and Mussina took the hard luck loss. That was a theme for the rest of 1991, as Mussina finished 4-5 with a 2.87 ERA, identical to his mark at Triple-A.

Mussina started 1992 with his hair on fire, beginning the campaign 5-0 and making his first All-Star appearance. Foreshadowing one of his greatest yet most heartbreaking Yankee moments nearly a decade later, he just missed a no-hitter. In what would become a habit of near misses in Mussina’s career, he fired a one-hitter on July 17th against the Texas Rangers. When the dust settled on his first full season, he had down-ballot MVP votes and finished fourth in Cy Young voting.

The 1994 through 1996 campaigns were more instances of Mussina getting tantalizingly close to a milestone that seemed destined to elude him. In ’94, when the players’ strike shut the game down, Moose had 16 wins in 24 starts. At that pace, 20 wins would have been a likely reward for a full season. When the sport returned in an abbreviated ’95 season, he won 19.

And in ’96, he had 19 wins with four starts left. In his final outing, he left after eight frames of one-run ball against Toronto, nursing a 2-1 lead and on the verge of 20 wins. Unfortunately for him, closer Armando Benitez gave up a game-tying single, leaving Moose stuck at 19 — it would be 12 years before he again had a chance to win his 20th game in a single season. Baltimore made the playoffs that year for the first time in Mussina’s career but fell to the Yankees, who were on their way to the first World Series of their late 90’s dynasty.

Mussina entered the 1997 campaign with free agency looming. On multiple occasions, he showcased exactly what a club could expect if it signed him. First, on May 30th, he took a perfect game into the ninth inning before a one-out Sandy Alomar Jr. single ruined another shot at baseball immortality. Then, in that year’s playoffs, he authored an eight-inning, one-run, 15-K masterpiece against Cleveland in Game 3 of the ALCS. It was one of Mussina’s greatest performances.

Moose never did make it to free agency on that occasion. In May ‘97, he instead signed a three-year, $21 million extension that kept him in Baltimore through the 2000 season. Moose was worth every penny. In his final three seasons as an Oriole, he eclipsed 200 innings each time (leading the Junior Circuit in 2000) amid a nine-season streak. ’99 saw him come closest to an ever-elusive Cy Young, finishing as the runner-up to a guy named Pedro Martinez.

But after a 74-88 Orioles season in 2000, Moose was a free agent. No extension this time. And despite his skepticism about his ability to handle a major media market, Mussina wasn’t ruling anything out.

“The Yankees Draw Their Fourth Ace”

New York put the full court press on Mussina from the start. Skipper Joe Torre stunned Mussina by calling the pitcher at his house in Montoursville in early November. Torre’s aims were two-fold. First, he wanted to show Mussina how much the Yankees wanted him. Second, Torre looked to reassure Mussina he would be a fit in the Big Apple.

That was just the beginning. Torre called again, and Derek Jeter, Paul O’Neill, Andy Pettitte, owner George Steinbrenner and General Manager Brian Cashman all helped recruit Moose. Days before he made his final decision, Mussina went for dinner with Torre and Cashman.

In the end, the Yankees got their man. Some late haggling over the structure of the deal made things a little hairy, but Mussina ultimately signed on the dotted line for $88.5 million over six years, as the Yanks beat out Boston, the Mets, and Orioles for the coveted right-hander.

BBA-YANKEES-MUSSINA HAT Photo by MATT CAMPBELL/AFP via Getty Images

The Last Year of the Yankee Dynasty

Moose gave the Yankees their money’s worth in the first year of his deal. His first start came in the Yanks’ third game of the season against Kansas City. O’Neill gave him all the offense he’d need with a solo shot and Moose took a shutout into the eighth before turning the game over to the bullpen. 1-0 Yankees and the early return on investment couldn’t have been better.

Mussina was only warming up, however. His 2001 hit its pinnacle on September 2, 2001 against the Red Sox. That night, Moose took a perfect game into the ninth inning. Hell, he took it to two strikes with two out in the ninth before a Red Sox who shall not be named here broke the hearts of Mussina and the entire Yankee universe.

His first regular season in New York ended with a 17-11 record and a 3.15 ERA over 228.2 innings (the third-highest total of his entire career), with a 2.92 FIP that led the American League. And when the ALDS rolled around, he continued to deliver. Everyone old enough remembers “The Flip Game” against Oakland in Game 3 of the DS, with the Yankees facing a potential sweep. Mussina hurled seven innings of shutout ball to outduel ascendant lefty Barry Zito, 1-0, with Jeter’s iconic toss to Posada (who had homered) nabbing the 21st and final out of Moose’s night. Mo took over for the final two innings and New York escaped Game 3 and eventually the ALDS.

For Mussina, that was the first of numerous stellar playoff performances as a Yankee. During his time in pinstripes, he tossed 97 innings of playoff ball, to the tune of a 3.25 ERA. In that year’s infamous World Series, Arizona roughed Mussina up in the first game, but with the Yankees’ backs against the wall in Game 5, he responded with eight innings of 10-strikeout, two-run ball, putting the club in position for a thrilling comeback that sent the series back to Arizona with the Yankees up 3-2.

That Fall Classic was the closest Mussina ever came to a championship. So close. For the Yankees. For Mussina.

Moose is the Cavalry

Mussina continued to give the Yankees everything they could have hoped for when they signed him the next two seasons. He totaled 67 starts, 35 wins, and 444.1 innings combined in ’02 and ’03. The latter season saw Mussina again come tantalizingly close to the World Series ring that eluded him. Between the 2003 ALDS and the first six games of the ALCS against Boston, Moose had taken three losses. But in Game 7 against Boston, with Roger Clemens scuffling, Joe Torre turned to Mussina in relief. Moose had made 400 appearances in the majors since his debut, including the playoffs. None of them had ever been in relief.

All he did was throw three innings of shutout baseball. New York still trailed when he departed the contest, but his performance set the stage for one of the most iconic Yankee comebacks in playoff history.

In the World Series, he did everything he could. Mussina hurled seven innings of shutout ball, whiffing nine Marlins in a Game 3 victory that put the Yanks up 2 games to 1. Alas, New York fell short again. It was Mussina’s last World Series appearance.

The Final Years

The next few seasons continued to put Mussina in position to compete for a championship. 2004 and 2005 were up and down campaigns for him, however. He did win his 200th game in ‘04, in the process becoming the ninth man in MLB history to win 100 games for two different teams.

But he also spent time battling ailments. He was removed from a start in June with tightness in his groin. And then in July, he found himself on the IL with elbow stiffness. It was his first stint since ’98, and he missed 36 games. Accordingly, he failed to throw 200 innings for the first time since the strike wiped out the end of the ’94 campaign.

2005 was more of the same. For the second straight season, his ERA was below league average, though to be fair it’s not like his performance cratered. A 98 and 96 ERA+ are by no means horrific, they just seem really bad when your career mark is 123.

Mussina was resurgent in 2006, however. In 32 starts that season, he went 15-7, and pitched to a 3.51 ERA (129 ERA+). Now 37 years old, Mussina also threw the 57th and final complete game of his career against the Detroit Tigers. Up 6-1 with two out in the ninth, Mussina saw movement from skipper Joe Torre in the Yankee dugout. “NO! Stay there!” Mussina barked at the Hall of Fame manager, who quickly acquiesced to his hurler’s, uh … suggestion.

Moments later, Mussina floated a full-count knuckle curve past the final hitter of the game, sealing the win and the complete game.

Mussina’s six-year deal expired after the ’06 season and, by any objective look, he was a bargain. Over those six campaigns, he went 92-53 in 187 starts, tossing 1200.2 regular season innings and compiling 29 rWAR.

His time as a Yankee was not finished. That offseason he and the club agreed on a two-year, $23 million deal, one that ultimately saw him through the end of his playing days. This time, it looked from the outset like New York would rue the deal. Moose struggled out of the gate in ’07 and had the worst season of his career, even ending up demoted to the bullpen briefly that fall.

However, to paraphrase Mark Twain, “reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated.” In 2008, the coda of his magnificent career, Mussina put his full brilliance on display one last time. He eclipsed 200 innings for the first time since 2003, led the American League in games started (at age 39!), and finally managed to accomplish one of the milestones that had escaped him.

In his final start, of the season and of his career, Mussina sat at 19 wins. Facing the Red Sox, the antagonist that cost him his perfect game, he responded with six shutout innings. His 20th victory was the 270th of his storied career and, with the Yankees failing to reach the postseason, was the final time he donned Yankee colors.

Post-Playing Career

There was never any real doubt in Mussina’s mind that he was done, despite sitting merely 30 wins from 300. Though no one knew it at the time, he had made his choice and was at peace with it.

Moose retired to Montoursville where he has remained active in the community. The Orioles elected him to their Hall of Fame in 2012, he entered the Little League Hall of Excellence in 2014, and received the NCAA Silver Anniversary Award in 2015.

In 2019, in his sixth year on the ballot, Mike Mussina’s career was finally elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame (the same cycle as his longtime closer, Mariano Rivera). As Andrew has noted in the past, it was well-earned and he had numbers better than over half of the pitchers already enshrined.

National Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

I argued at the beginning of this piece that the story of Mike Mussina is one of “almost” and “so close.” Inarguably, he just missed on so many personal and team milestones. His 8.2 perfect frames against Boston remains one of the greatest pitching performances in Yankee history. He joined the team the year after it won a World Series, and retired the season before the Yankees won its most recent title.

But at the end of the day, Moose is a Hall of Famer who spent half his career in the Bronx. He sits 10th all-time among Yankee hurlers in rWAR, ahead of Herb Pennock, Jack Chesbro, and CC Sabathia, and just behind Waite Hoyt.

Staff rank: 30
Community rank: 43
Stats rank: 34
2013 rank: 29

References

Baseball-Reference

Brecker, Ryan. SABR Bio

FanGraphs

Olney, Buster. “Baseball; Mussina Sails Right Along in First Start for Yankees.The New York Times. April 6, 2001.

Olney, Buster. The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty. Harper Collins, 2009.

Shpigel, Ben. “Mussina Gets First Choice, Returning to the Yankees.The New York Times. November 28, 2006.

Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina announces retirement.” The New York Times. November 20, 2008.

Previously on the Top 100

33. Gil McDougald
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