Baseball 87: Mike Mussina

Some years ago, a baseball executive of some renown was talking about Mike Mussina, and he said something that I will never forget. He said: "You know what? The best way I can describe Moose is -- the guy's just a mensch."

That's a complicated scouting report.

Mensch is a great word. It's a Yiddish word, and its meaning is hard to fully capture. Mensch literally translates to "human being," which obviously doesn't tell you much. In Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevye the Milkman is talking about how much his son-in-law has matured and grown -- how he has become a mensch -- he says: "This Mottel is a PERSON." They're asking the word person to do an awful lot of heavy lifting there.

The more common definition of mensch is "a person of integrity and honor." But this isn't a whole lot better than "human being" when it comes to getting at the core meaning of mensch. "A person of integrity and honor" sounds like a war hero, an honest politician, a philanthropist, a person who spends their life in the service of others. These people across the board are almost certainly mensches, but that's not all that it means.

Leo Rosten, in The Joy of Yiddish, defines a mensch as "someone to admire and emulate, with the key being nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous." That's better, but even so, it's one of those words that isn't really definable, except through stories.

A mensch is someone who, when they borrow your car or lawnmower, returns it filled up with gas.

A mensch sends you a thoughtful handwritten note after interviewing you -- even if you didn't get the job.

A mensch is a person who stands up to defend you when you're not around.

A mensch is someone who gives up an aisle seat for a middle so that people traveling together can sit next to each other.

A mensch leaves a note on the windshield if they tap or dent your car.

A mensch goes back to the table to leave a few extra bucks because they feel like the tip left by the group was too small.

A mensch is the person who always brings a hostess gift, surprises you by remembering your birthday, knows your kids' names (bonus mensch points for knowing the dog's name too), offers to take a photo when seeing people struggling with their group selfie, and always remembers to pass along the promised book or recipe or recommendation.

In other words, a mensch is someone that many people would also call "a sucker."

But that doesn't bother the mensch. He or she isn't perfect, far from it. A mensch makes as many mistakes as the next person. A mensch is the person who apologizes for those mistakes, makes up for them, keeps striving to do better in situations big and small.*

*As you can see, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the word mensch. Also the French phrase L'esprit de l'escalier, which is literally "the wit of the staircase," but it really just means thinking of the perfect retort too late. The closest thing we have in English is "The jerk store called." I love learning about non-English words that don't quite translate.

Was Mike Mussina a mensch? Like I say, it's complicated.

As a pitcher, mensch is the perfect description of Mussina. He more or less did everything right. The fact that he hasn't been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame yet (it will happen soon, I know it) is in many ways a celebration of his menschiness. He never did a thing for show. He didn't falter because the fates seemed to gang up against him. He never did a thing to point to himself. He's a stat geek who didn't play for stats, a New York Yankee who loathed attention, a pitcher who finished Top 6 in the Cy Young voting nine times but never won the thing, a starter who took five no-hitters into the eighth inning but never threw a no-hitter, a guy who won 20 games for the first time as a 39-year-old and promptly retired rather than go for 300 victories, a Hall-of-Fame clincher that was within shouting distance. (He finished with 270.)

Mussina was a brilliant high school pitcher in Montoursville, Pa., one town over from the Little League World Series. Doug Melvin was an Orioles scout then, and he saw Moose pitch and was blown away. Melvin said Mussina was an 18-year-old who pitched like he was 28. That's the sort of thing you say about a mensch. Moose had an advanced way of thinking about how to mix different pitches to keep hitters off-balance, about where you throw those pitches to make the hitter uncomfortable, and so on. Mussina was a crossword puzzle guy; he enjoyed the challenge of solving things. He also threw hard. It was a pretty remarkable combination, especially in high school.

Moose and his father, Malcolm, a successful lawyer, told scouts not to draft him: Mike was going to Stanford. The Orioles drafted him in the 11th round anyway, on the off-chance that they could get him to change his mind. They were not going to change his mind. Moose graduated from Stanford in 3 1/2 years.

This probably did not delay the timing of his major league debut -- he made just 28 minor league starts before getting his first big-league start in Chicago at age 22. He went 7 2/3 innings, allowed four hits and one run (a Frank Thomas homer). He took the loss. Yeah, that more or less would capture the vibe of his career: brilliance, tough luck and no credit all thrown together into one stew.

Sorry, I have to pause for a second here ...

Have you seen the photo of Mussina that's on his Baseball Reference page? I can't stop looking at it.

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Could he possibly look less happy to be here? That's not a "just take the $^#% picture already" glare. It's more like a "What's the point of life anyway?" look.

The photo perfectly describes Mussina's general posture -- even as he pitched in the big and historic baseball markets of Baltimore and New York, he never stopped being the introverted, small-town kid. He did not grow comfortable with the off-the-mound stuff that goes with being a big league pitcher. He wore this face a lot.

"I see him with that sourpuss," Don Zimmer said, "and I say, 'How's your personality, Moose?'"

This hardly sounds like a mensch, I realize. Mussina didn't like dealing with the press for much of his career. He wasn't especially friendly with teammates. He could come across as rude and distant. He talked openly about how he had to put himself first to succeed.

"Some days, I can't," he tried to explain about talking with the press. "Some days I won't because I know that I'm in the wrong frame of mind ... I'll be short, and it'll come out wrong."

For Moose, this was simply a calculation he made. His job was to pitch well, year after year, decade after decade. And he intended to do his job. He was uncomfortable in the spotlight, didn't like the barrage of questions, didn't think that too much psychoanalysis was going to be particularly helpful to his pitching. And he was never happy when people looked at him differently. When he went home to Montoursville and could feel like himself again, he opened up, was involved in every charity imaginable, coached the junior varsity basketball team, raised money for scholarships for kids around town, all of that mensch stuff. "Here, I'm just Mike," he said happily.

In the big leagues, he couldn't be just Mike. "I think the way I've looked at it," he told Newsday's Ken Davidoff, "is I'm not going to please everybody all the time. I'm better off making sure that my state of mind is OK before I worry about everybody else's state of mind. I'm the one who has to go out and do this."

In other words: He realized that pitching lousy was NOT a mensch thing to do. So not pitching lousy was his entire focus.

He rarely did pitch lousily, but things never went entirely Mussina's way. This list of near-misses in Mike Mussina's career is long and legendary and, when taken all together, strangely touching. There's a melancholy vibe about Mussina's career.

-- In 1992, he went 18-5 -- he would have won 20 games except for eight quality starts where he either lost or got a no-decision. He finished fourth in the Cy Young voting, behind Dennis Eckersley, whose WAR that year was 2.9. Moose's was 8.2.

-- In 1994, he was 16-5 and would have been a near-lock for 20 wins had the players' strike not canceled the rest of the season. He again finished fourth in the Cy Young voting.

-- In 1995, he went 19-9 and would probably have won 20 had that season not been shortened because of the lockout. He finished fifth in the Cy Young voting.

-- In 1996, Mussina did not pitch well; it was, in his own mind, his worst season. But he still won 19 games (and still finished fifth in the Cy Young voting) and had a clear chance at his 20th win in his last start in Toronto. He threw eight innings, allowed one run, left with a 2-1 lead. Armando Benitez blew it in the ninth by allowing a homer to Moose's old college teammate Ed Sprague, and that was that.

-- In 1997, Mussina had a perfect game going with one out in the ninth inning -- Cleveland only managed five balls out of the infield -- when he got a 1-1 fastball just a touch up to Sandy Alomar, who lined it over Cal Ripken's head into left for a single. Mussina struck out the last two. "He threw maybe three pitches that they could hit all night," Hall of Famer Jim Palmer told Ken Rosenthal. "A high change-up to David Justice. He didn't get the ball in enough to Sandy. Maybe it was two pitches they could hit. How do you do that?"

-- That October, he was brilliant in the postseason -- in two starts against Cleveland in the ALCS, he allowed one run in 15 innings. He didn't get the win in either of those games. The second start was Game 6; Mussina allowed one hit in eight innings, no runs, he struck out 10. Benitez gave up a homer in the 11th, and the Tribe went to the World Series.

-- In 2001, now with the Yankees, he was probably the best pitcher in the American League. He led the league in FIP, fWAR, bWAR and situational wins saved, none of which existed or mattered to Cy Young voters in 2001. He lost the Cy to his teammate Roger Clemens, despite having somewhat obvious advantages, such as a lower ERA, more strikeouts, fewer walks, more complete games, more shutouts, etc. But he didn't just lose to Clemens. He finished fifth in the voting and didn't get a single first-place vote, because of a 17-11 record.

-- That same year, he took another perfect game into the ninth inning at Fenway Park. This one would prove even more heartbreaking -- he got two outs and had two strikes on the hitter, Carl Everett. Moose threw a high fastball to Everett, more or less where he was trying to get it. Everett fought it off and singled on a soft liner to left.

"I'm going to think about that pitch until I retire," Mussina said.

He could have won 20 in 2002, but had three consecutive quality starts in September turn into losses, He finished with 18 wins. In 2003, he pitched brilliantly in his one World Series start against Florida and was set to start Game 7, but Josh Beckett shut out the Yankees in Game 6 to end things before Moose could take the stage.

[caption id="attachment_23641" align="aligncenter" width="439"] Mussina's Hall of Fame credentials are undeniable.[/caption]

And then, he settled into a different role, the veteran pitcher who no longer had great stuff but went out there every fifth day and tried to figure it out. He succeeded a lot by confounding expectations; for instance, he began challenging hitters with inside fastballs when he had lived for years on the outside half of the plate. He took some beatings too.

"The way I saw it," Henry says in Goodfellas, "everybody has to take a beating some time."

Then, at age 39, he got off to such a bad start that there was some talk of pulling Mussina from the rotation. In his first four starts, the league hit .313/.360/.538 against him, and it seemed like he had nothing left to offer. One last time, Moose found a way. He ended up leading the league in starts, walked just 31 batters in 200 innings, pitched around a whole lot of hits, kept the ball in the ballpark, and won 20 games for the first time in his career.

It was beautiful. Mussina had used all the tricks, all the sleight-of-hand, all the magic he had learned over his long baseball life. In the last 30 starts of his career, Moose had a 3.10 ERA and the Yankees went 22-8. He even won his seventh Gold Glove.

A pitcher who wins the Gold Glove is, by definition, a baseball mensch.

Then, Mussina retired, no regrets, and went home to be with his family and community. "I don't think I'll change my mind," he told reporters. He never did.

The day after he retired, the New York Daily News ran a story with a huge headline "Coopers-Frown," an opinion piece about how Mussina's career had fallen just short of the Hall of Fame. That timing seems a bit cruel and more than a bit premature, but let's face it: Moose's career probably couldn't have ended any other way.

He actually will get into Cooperstown; his rapid rise in the voting makes clear that it's now only a matter of time. The years have been kind to Moose. Those nagging disappointments -- failing to win 20, just missing the no-hitters, falling just short of championships -- fade into the background, and a bigger story rises in its place. Mussina's 270 wins -- for those who care about wins -- will place him in the upper-half of Hall of Fame starters, and his .638 win-percentage (the same, poetically, as Jim Palmer's) is better than 56 of the 68 Hall of Famers with at least 1,500 innings pitched.

His 123 ERA+? Better than 37 of the 68.

His 48.9 wins above average? Better than 54 of the 68.

His 63.8 JAWS score puts him comfortably above the Hall of Fame line.

But forget the numbers, if you wish. Mussina was an all-time great, and he did it his way, quietly, with dominant stuff and without it, through control and variety and great defense, on good teams and bad, through good times and bad. He won in double-digits every single year. He never won a Cy Young, never won a World Series, but he didn't let those things define him. And when he knew the time was right, he walked away.

Seems like a mensch to me.