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MUSSI

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Montoursville, Pa.

On a frigid midwinter night, in the only house in the neighborhood with a satellite dish planted in the backyard and a newly oiled pitcher's glove lying on the kitchen table, Eleanor and Malcolm Mussina are discussing their oldest son's future.

In the Crossfire: Mike Mussina -- Too Much, Too Soon?

He says: "Mike can't go 18-5 for the next 15 years. Nobody wins three-quarters of their games, not Sandy Koufax, not Cy Young. I'm sure the Orioles think he'll win 20 games next year. They just know Mussina can do it. Well, there are a lot of ways he can't win 20 games next year. I just sort of hoped he wouldn't make that All-Star Game last year. Now, he's expected to. I would have been satisfied at 12-10."

She says: "What are you waiting for? Why not go for it, now?"

He says: "I'd rather see a building, rather than something sudden, like, 'You're a phenom, the next Jim Palmer.' All that happy stuff. He's 24. He's mortal."

She says: "Go for it."

He says: "Well, it can't always be up, up and up."

Why not?

Who says Mike Mussina can't win 18 or 20 games in 1993?

He's talented, smart and healthy, the best young Orioles pitcher of a generation.

But isn't everything happening a little too fast?

Five years after graduating fourth in his class at Montoursville High School, he finished fourth in balloting for the American League's Cy Young Award.

Can you blame his parents for debating his baseball prospects? With so little past to work on, who can figure how this season will go?

His is still a career of possibility, launched with a 90-mph fastball, yet shaped by his uncommon intelligence. This is a pitcher, not a thrower, who was 18-5 in 1992 -- his first full season with the Orioles. Yet on the hori

zon are burdensome expectations of a team rebuilt and prepared to contend for a division title.

But so little is known about Mussina.

The right-hander, 6 feet 2, 180 pounds, remains inscrutable. He demands to be judged by his performance when he confounds hitters, not just with his variety of pitches, but with his mesmerizing concentration. Yet he is guarded and not exactly thrilled with interviews. He even wants to see the writer's clips before he starts talking.

Twenty-four going on 40.

Who is this guy, anyway?

"He's not the kind of guy who you could know if you were around Montoursville for a week," said his father, Malcolm, an attorney. "He really doesn't tell people what he thinks."

A local hero

Montoursville. Population 5,000. A long, long fly ball from Williamsport and baseball's Little League World Series. The town has six traffic lights, three schools, a couple of churches and gas stations and a Wal-Mart out by the interstate.

For a local hero, this is paradise along the Susquehanna.

Down at Cellini's sub shop, they have two walls filled with Mike Mussina pictures, caps, newspaper clippings -- even a Mussina autograph behind the counter.

Four hundred people showed up at the local American Legion hall to honor Mussina before Thanksgiving. He tried to watch a junior high school football game and spent the first half signing autographs. And Mussina donated his time -- and again, his signature -- to raise more than $8,000 to put up lights at the town's Little League field.

He has a key to the high school weight room. Works out with friends. Plays pickup basketball games two hours at a time. Pitches to his younger brother, Mark, a junior at Susquehanna College.

"It's a quiet town," he said. "Not too busy. Not too many people. It doesn't take a half-hour to get everywhere. I'm in my car, and, three minutes later, I can work out."

Here, in an isolated slice of central Pennsylvania connected to the rest of the country by the interstate and cable television, they know Mussina.

His chilling, brown-eyed stare and in-your-face fastball that some in Baltimore take for confidence bordering on arrogance is just his way of showing who's the boss.

His reluctance to talk about himself with reporters isn't insolence -- it's shyness, a trademark of a man terrified of graduating in the top three of his high school class for fear of having to give a commencement address.

"I hear a lot of people say he's cocky and arrogant," said Craig Ashley, who caught Mussina in high school and remains a good friend. "You get to know Mike, he's soft-spoken, and he knows what he has to do."

First impressions, even second ones, though, are often wrong. Turns out that the town hero, the perfect kid, would have been just as comfortable filling the role of town rebel.

Ask him the athletes he admires most, and he ticks off some unusual names, John McEnroe, Brian Bosworth and Jim McMahon. Mussina, the straight arrow, identifies with the iconoclasts. Give him blood, guts and controversy. Even a little shouting. Why do you think he devours Stephen King books like they are candy, or watches every "Lethal Weapon" movie ever made, a couple of times, or extols the virtues of listening to Guns 'N Roses?

"I like controversy," he said. "It attracts people, whether you hate them or like them, you still watch them. But . . ."

The sentence remained incomplete for a second. Mussina did not want to reveal too much.

"I'm cautious about being like that," he said. "I have to be a role model. Out of 45,000 people who are at the games, you've got at least 10,000 kids."

/# He sounds sincere in the way of

someone raised to be a star, who knows his place in a community and understands that he is supposed to act a certain way.

But it's often tough to be the local hero of a small town.

"Now, Mike is the greatest thing since chocolate pie," Montoursville High School baseball coach Carter Giles said. "But you heard some resentment before."

His parents would sit in the stands and hear the comments.

Football: "Why are they always passing to him?"

Basketball: "If my kid shot that much, he'd be benched."

Baseball: "Of course he's good, his parents pushed him."

"You make a lot of enemies," Mussina said. "There's some jealousy. I've had my car vandalized more than once. I wasn't one of those guys who drank a lot in high school. It was like, 'Oh man, why don't you go out with us?' Everyone had an opinion that I thought I was better than anybody else. As an athlete, you could see that."

Truth is, Mussina said, he was just like any other teen-ager. A little awkward. Eager to fit in.

Even stars need to be liked.

Setting the stage

In retrospect, it's easy to chart the trajectory of Mussina's career from Montoursville to the major leagues by way of Stanford University.

The small town nurtured him, gave him a stage on which to perform. Stanford, where he played from 1987 to 1990, became a laboratory for pitching and Mussina a willing student. He refined his craft in northern California, even received a degree in economics in three years and a quarter semester, and after a little more than a year in the minor leagues, he was prepared for the Orioles.

"People say, 'You've had an easy road to the big leagues.' I have to agree with them," Mussina said.

To find his roots, you come here, walking through the town's streets, discovering the signposts of a life and a career.

The family home, a rancher, sits two lots away from a park.

As a child, Mike would retreat to the basement, throwing a rubber ball at a strike zone taped against a concrete wall. When he grew a little older, he'd go out to the fields and kick field goals.

In the family's living room, the Mussinas bring out a scrapbook. There's Mike, age 8, smiling, bangs peeking from underneath his cap, a bat cocked on his right shoulder.

A few newspaper clips tell the story of a boy who threw 10 no-hitters. There are even a few shots of Mike in glasses, a couple of years before he started wearing contact lenses.

And there's the self-portrait of Mike at age 10. It's a baseball

card, drawn with green and gold crayons.

Mike Mussina -- Little League All-Star.

The Little League field is wedged into a neighborhood on the corner of Walnut and Elm. A chain-link fence spreads across the outfield, about 200 feet from home plate. Just beyond center field are two sets of swings.

When he was 8, Mussina showed up here for his first baseball practice and ran home crying because no one else was there.

"I had to get on a bicycle and drag him back," said his mother, Eleanor, a nurse.

"Mike was always a homebody. I swear, there were sometimes I'd think: 'Is Mike going to be 35 years sitting in the living room at home watching TV?' "

In fact, Mussina would sit home for hours, watching on television as major-league pitchers such as Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver performed in the big cities. Even as a teen-ager, he could analyze the mechanics of the future Hall of Famers, and then apply what he learned in Little League games.

He was overpowering.

"When God said, 'Here, throw a baseball,' Mike just did it without instruction," said Malcolm Mussina, his son's Little League coach. "He was a natural."

The high school stands on Mulberry Street.

Brick front. American flag flapping in the breeze. The athletic fields bordering a parking lot filled with pickups and American-made cars.

Mussina excelled in every sport he tried, playing a half-dozen positions in football, scoring 1,400 points as a basketball guard, doubling as a switch-hitting shortstop-pitcher in baseball.

He once kicked a 65-yard field goal in practice. Just for fun, and wearing a pair of sneakers, he triple jumped more than 40 feet. He could throw a football 40 yards . . . left-handed.

"Growing up, Mike didn't have a great love of baseball," said his brother, Mark. "That was just his best sport."

Mussina also was just about the smartest kid in school, too, invited into the National Honor Society at Montoursville High, a member of the Spanish club, straight-A's all the way.

But it was his ability in baseball that brought attention to the town. He pitched for a state championship team as a junior in 1986, and then went national later that summer, appearing at the U.S. Olympic Festival in Houston. There, Mussina finally matched his skills with others from around the country and discovered that only five other high school pitchers were throwing fastballs in the 90s.

Mussina pitched well enough to earn a position on a junior Olympic team.

And later that summer, in a tournament in Canada, he faced juniors from Cuba and struck out 16 batters in a 1-0 victory.

"I didn't think it was any big deal," Mussina said. "I struck out 16 in high school games all the time, and those were seven-inning games. I had nine innings against the Cubans."

Others, however, were impressed.

Out-of-town attention

College coaches and pro scouts would come to Montoursville and ask for directions from the airport. The Mussinas would just laugh and say: "Walk outside the hangar, cross the railroad tracks, walk three blocks and dead-end into the field."

The out-of-towners would bring their radar guns and notebooks, sit behind the splintered green wooden backstop and start to shake their heads as this lanky kid threw strike after strike.

"I wasn't nervous," Mussina said. "I mean, I had done something to bring all those radar guns out."

The Orioles selected him in the 11th round of the June 1987 amateur draft and made a strong pitch to sign him. Edward Bennett Williams, then the team owner, personally led the negotiations, promising Mussina a $175,000 signing bonus, the same as the first-rounders were receiving.

But Mussina was adamant -- he was going to college.

"I didn't think I was ready to ride around buses in the minors," he said. "I didn't want to be a guy who blew out his arm in the Appalachian League and went home to pump gas."

Some in the town stayed behind to work on farms or take jobs in Williamsport. Others headed off to college. But Mussina knew exactly where he wanted to go and how to get there.

He was bound for the big leagues.

"I never thought I'd stop playing baseball," he said.

From afar, the town watched Mussina progress at Stanford. Starting pitcher as a freshman. A sophomore setback, when he strained his elbow throwing sidearm and woke up one morning unable to bend his arm. He was sidelined for two months, and even though he now says he was always confident his career would resume, those who know him paint a different picture.

"He was scared," said Ashley, his old friend and catcher. "He had to pick himself up and work. Everyone in town was worried for him."

But Mussina came back as a junior, throwing harder than ever, a lot smarter, too, winning 14 games, once again raising hopes in the town. When the Orioles drafted him again, this time in the first round in 1990, well, it was as if he was coming home for good.

He got to the majors so fast, zooming from Single-A to Triple-A in a year. And no one in town was surprised. He was always, always in a hurry. Always set goals. Always met them.

Why should baseball have been any different?

"Sitting back now, I wouldn't have written a script any better," he said.

"Except for that elbow thing. That made me realize how human I was, how early everything can end."

Ready for the challenge

A mid-winter day in Baltimore, and Mussina has finished a workout at Camden Yards. Dressed in jeans and a sweat shirt, his brown hair hurriedly combed, he looks like a college kid skipping class, not some major-league pitcher preparing for another season.

He checks his mail and finds a letter from Donald Fehr, head of the players' union. Mussina is the Orioles' player rep. Why not? He's got the degree from Stanford.

He sits for a lunch at an Inner Harbor restaurant. A waitress asks him for three autographs. Two busboys shyly hand him a baseball and picture of himself in uniform, and he signs the items.

"This usually doesn't happen to me," he says.

The big city. It's different. He's growing accustomed to a level of stardom multiplied beyond anything he has ever encountered in Montoursville.

He says he is ready. Not just for the fame, but for the challenge of trying to win again, the second full year around.

"Last year, I was fighting for a job in the spring," he says.

"This year, it doesn't look like I have to fight so much, but I have to go in and be prepared to defend my spot, to fend off 10,000 other guys."

He says he knows there is some debate about the numbers he produced last season. Best winning percentage in the major leagues. A 2.54 earned run average. Fourth in the Cy Young voting.

"A foot in the door," he says.

Too much, too soon? A fluke?

C7 "A lot of people think it was," he says. "I don't."

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