MYSTERY MAN Mussina defies definition, puzzles hitters

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There is something elusive about Orioles pitcher Mike Mussina. In a clubhouse than tends to be businesslike rather than boisterous, he seems more comfortable in the background than on center stage.

Mussina is as hard to read as one of his changeups: Is the 23-year-old right-hander aloof or merely quiet, a tad arrogant or rightfully confident, friendly or frosty?

Even his manager has had a difficult time trying to figure him out.

"Mike's a tough guy to describe," says Johnny Oates.

"I've always been like that," says Mussina. "Some might think I'm being arrogant. I don't want to be too predictable."

Trying to pin down Mussina's pitching style is equally problematic: Is he a control pitcher with a live fastball, or a power pitcher with incredible control? Does he have four pitches, or is it eight?

Is Mussina, as Rick Dempsey calls him, "the best pitcher to come into the major leagues since Roger Clemens"? Or is it only a matter of time before American League hitters catch on to his magic?

Those who have followed Mussina's fast-track career from small-town hero in Montoursville, Pa., to burgeoning big-league star in Camden Yards are hardly surprised by his stunning success this season.

Orioles coach Greg Biagini, who managed Mussina for parts of two seasons in Rochester, recalls the first Triple-A game he ever started. Facing an early bases-loaded, no-out situation, Mussina struck out the side.

"It was amazing," says Biagini, still shaking his head in wonder. "You knew right then he was going to be all right."

Says veteran pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, "When you start looking at his numbers, the one thing that stands out is that he's had success everywhere he's been. I don't think this is a big surprise to him. He expects it of himself."

Mussina's numbers this year are both sublime and ridiculous for someone who less than two weeks ago celebrated his first anniversary in the big leagues: an 11-4 record, a 2.44 ERA and three shutouts, including a 4-0, five-hit victory over the Detroit Tigers in his last start.

Except for Chicago's Frank Thomas, few have been able to get to Mussina with much regularity. After a masterful one-hitter last month in Texas, Ruben Sierra said of Mussina, "He pitched like a devil."

After striking out twice and going 0-for-4 on Wednesday, Detroit's Cecil Fielder said of Mussina, "He's been taught well. He's been listening to what somebody's been telling him."

Yet even Mussina is a bit stunned at how quickly it has evolved. After being the Orioles' No. 1 draft pick in 1990, he figured he would someday get to Baltimore. But not within a year. And he hoped one day to be an All-Star. But not in his first full season.

"I'm not surprised that I've been successful, but I don't think I expected it to come so soon," says Mussina. "I have a lot of self-confidence. The past is usually a pretty good barometer for the future. My past hasn't been too bad."

*

The readout on Mussina's career, if not his entire life, doesn't contain many blips. On the surface, it seems to be Roy Hobbs comes-to-life. Even Mussina admits that he is something of a natural.

He led his local Little League in hitting with a .493 average as a 10-year-old playing with 12-year-olds. He shot 92 the first time he ever stepped on a regulation golf course. He started for the local high school team as a freshman.

"I could always pick things up pretty fast," says Mussina, who keeps proving that.

"He was always a couple of years ahead of himself," says his father, Malcolm, a lawyer in Williamsport, Pa. "Mike always took a very logical approach. He would never try something that would overwhelm him."

While it might seem this has all been planned, the only blueprint belonged to Mussina. He would watch sports for hours on television, then go out and imitate his favorite players. Usually he went by himself.

Malcolm Mussina recalls how the older of his two sons would goff to work on his jump shot, or his placekicking, or his fastball. It wasn't the way most kids did it, fantasizing for a half-hour before getting bored.

"He would be out there for hours," recalls the elder Mussina. "Ithere was something he couldn't do, he worked on it. He had enough natural ability not to beat his head against the wall."

A loner

Mussina was something of a loner, mostly because his friends didn't want to put in the practice time. And there wasn't anyone in town who could teach him. His father jokes that "he exceeded me athletically by the time he was 10."

"Without sounding arrogant," says Mike Mussina, "there was nobody who could show me anything I didn't know."

It was the same with school. Though education was stressed in the house, there was a lot of self-motivation. A's were just as important to him as W's.

"School was school and sports was sports," says Mussina, who was offered scholarships to Stanford in baseball, Penn State in football and Vanderbilt in basketball. "Sports took me away from school to relax and school brought me back to reality."

He passed on his first chance at playing pro ball, when the Orioles drafted him in the 11th round out of high school, choosing instead to go to Stanford.

The success he had in Montoursville continued in Palo Alto. He was 9-4 as a freshman, spent most of his sophomore year sidelined with a bad elbow, then went 14-5 as a junior. He received a degree in economics in 3 1/2 years.

"I loved Stanford," said Mussina, a bachelor who lives in Jessup during the season, but spends a lot of time at his alma mater during the off-season. "I wasn't there to compete academically. That was still out of my league. That wasn't my focus. My focus was to get my stuff down."

Moving up the ladder

Mussina might have only been an average college student, but he left Stanford magna cum laude in stuff. He was 3-0 with a 1.49 ERA in seven games at Hagerstown, moving quickly up the Orioles' organizational ladder.

"Tommy Brown, his Double-A manager, told me that this kid was ready for the big leagues back then," says Orioles pitching coach Dick Bosman, who came to the same conclusion when Mussina arrived in Rochester for two games at the end of the 1990 season, followed by 19 games last season. "It was pretty obvious from the beginning that this kid was special."

Biagini says that Mussina is not much different now than he was in Rochester. Unlike most prospects, Mussina had a full repertoire of pitches. He knew how to throw them for strikes and, more importantly, when to throw them.

"You figure a first-round draft pick has all the talent, all the potential, but he had all the intangibles too," says Biagini. "Whatever he has to do, he is capable of mentally and physically doing it. I think it's his mental toughness and discipline that's really advanced for his age."

Says Orioles catcher Jeff Tackett, "He's the same as he was in Triple-A. Maybe he's matured in knowing what to do in certain situations, but that's the only difference. He could always throw any of four pitches for a strike."

The McDonald factor

Though the Orioles didn't want to make the same mistake that they had with Ben McDonald, rushing him to the big leagues before he was ready, it was senseless to keep Mussina down on the farm.

If anything, Mussina has benefited from following McDonald. Even if he had struggled, it wouldn't have been front-page news. As Mussina joked during spring training, "I kind of slipped in the door."

But now the door is wide open. While Sutcliffe took a month to win No. 150, while McDonald slumped before recently turning things around, while Arthur Rhodes came as both Jose Mesa and Bob Milacki went, Mussina has emerged as the Orioles' best pitcher.

"There are guys who never struggle, but who don't get better," says Oates. "Maybe he hasn't struggled, but he's staying one step ahead of the competition. He's not going to stand pat. He wants to get better."

Says Mussina, "You learn something every time you go out there."

After a recent three-start stretch without a victory, and despite some concern that his valuable right arm was starting to tire, Mussina has seemingly gotten his second wind for the 1992 season.

It came against the Tigers, a team that Mussina has owned since coming to Baltimore. An interesting sidelight to Mussina's season: Wednesday's victory over Detroit made him 4-3 at home, but he is a 7-1 on the road. Mussina will open the crucial four-game series in Toronto Monday night.

"I've seen young guys with better fastballs, and better curves, but Mussina has the package," says Detroit manager Sparky Anderson. "They've got a guy like Palmer."

Intelligent. Talented. Even a bit arrogant.

"That's his game face," says Oates. "He can be an arrogant blankety-blank out there. He isn't intimidated by anyone."

One thing is clear: Though he sometimes doesn't show it, Mussina understands that 23-year-old pitchers are not supposed begin their major-league careers this way.

He is too busy reading scouting reports, and Stephen King mysteries, to pay close attention to what is being written. But he is too aware of his surroundings to ignore the comparisons to pitchers already on their way, or in, a certain building in Cooperstown.

"I appreciate it," he says. "But if I start reading too much and believing too much, I might get in trouble."

And someone might figure him out.

Not bad for starters

A look at how Mike Mussina's stats over his first two seasons stack up against those of five other great pitchers in Orioles history:

Year.. .. W-L.. ..G.. ..IP.. ..H.. ..BB.. ..SO.. ..ERA

JIM PALMER

1965.. ..5-4.. ..27.. ..92.. .75.. ..56.. ..75.. ..3.72

15-10.. ..30.. .208 1/3 ..176.. ..91.. .147.. ..3.46

DAVE McNALLY

1962.. .1-0.. .. 1.. .. .9.. ..2.. .. 3.. .. 4.. ..0.00

1963.. .7-8.. .. 29.. .125 2/3 .. 133.. .55.. ..78.. ..4.58

MIKE CUELLAR

1959.. .0-0.. .. .2.. .. 4.. ..7.. ...4.. .. 5.. .15.75

1964.. .5-5.. .. 32.. ..72.. .80.. ..33.. ..56.. ..4.50

MIKE FLANAGAN

1975.. .0-1.. .. .2.. ..9 2/3 .. ..9.. .. 6.. .. 7.. ..2.70

1976.. .3-5.. .. 20.. ..85.. .83.. ..33.. ..56.. ..4.13

SCOTT McGREGOR

1976.. .0-1.. .. .3.. ..15.. .17.. ...5.. .. 6.. ..3.60

1977.. .3-5.. .. 29.. .114.. 119.. ..30.. ..55.. ..4.42

MIKE MUSSINA

1991.. .4-5.. .. 12.. .87.2.. 77.. ..21.. .. 52.. .2.87

1992.. 11-4.. .. 21.. ..155..133.. ..27.. .. 80.. .2.44

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