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Entering final weeks, Mussina exit looms


Mike Mussina's eyes are behind a pair of Oakley sunglasses staring into a late-afternoon glare. There is little noticeable reaction when he hears a question unimaginable in January, implausible in April but totally reasonable in the third week of September.

What will Mussina's thoughts be on the evening of Sept. 27?

That night against the Toronto Blue Jays is scheduled to be the Orioles' 158th game of the season and Mussina's 288th start in an Orioles uniform. Right now, it's widely expected to be his last appearance for the club that drafted him in 1990, brought him to Baltimore after only 28 minor-league starts and rode him through five All-Star seasons.

It could well be Mussina's last start in a place that seemed so appealing to him three years ago that he signed a below-market contract extension guaranteeing he would remain part of a club poised for a run of dominance.

"Things were very different then," Mussina said Friday.

Two weeks remain in a third consecutive fourth-place season. Mussina rejected owner Peter Angelos' revised six-year, $72 million offer earlier this month, prompting Angelos to take it off the table.

Mussina, 31, knows he signed for below value by accepting a three-year, $20.45 million deal in 1997. And he insists he will not sell himself short this time.

Nor, he insists, will he phone Angelos to initiate a compromise.

The Orioles have yet to surrender. Though Mussina does not expect further activity until he files for free agency in the two weeks after the World Series, the club does not believe any hurdle insurmountable, according to vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift.

"I still think that there's a good chance he'll be pitching here next year. I'm an enternal optimist, but that's the way I feel," Thrift said. "The door is still very much open. I still believe it's possible something could happen."

Unlike 1997, Mussina has declined to override agent Arn Tellem's advice. And that advice apparently will allow him to entertain offers this winter from the Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers among others.

"I don't think I should have to phone him," Mussina said of Angelos. "When I file, teams will be contacting us, not the other way around. That's the way it will work then, so why shouldn't it work that way now?"

Mussina dismissed the Orioles' latest offer because it included $12 million deferred at no interest and because its average annual value did not increase from a 7-month-old offer of five years at $60 million. However, Angelos' addition of a sixth year is not inconsequential for an organization recently burned by a five-year deal awarded Scott Erickson in May 1998.

This season has been unlike any other for Mussina. He's suffering his first losing record since 1991, has pitched his first season as a pending free agent and has referred to unspecified off-field situations that have weighed on his mind. He does not count his contract status among them.

"Every year is remembered for a combination of things," he said. "This year is no different. I guess I'm proud of the way I've pitched. Some things are out of my control. But I think I've done a good job with those things I can control."

This season has been a frustrating amalgam. Mussina pitched poorly in April, and his attempts to rehabilitate his record were stymied by poor run support.

The breakup of the team in July wounded him, especially the 11th-hour trade of left fielder B. J. Surhoff to the Atlanta Braves on July 31. While the pace of negotiations has at times irritated him, he insists it has not distracted him.

Mussina has been around long enough to have original ideas about the club's renovation. He said he has received only general suggestions of the "plan" promised by vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift, but said he remains uncertain about how quickly or how effectively it might be carried out.

"It works both ways. It has some impact," Mussina said. "But it's not the most important consideration."

With Mussina, the Orioles possess one of the American League's few certified aces. Without Mussina, the Orioles would have to address two gaping holes in next year's rotation. (Erickson is not expected to return until at least next August because of ligament replacement surgery in his right elbow.)

An organization source recently suggested that the club could use the $14 million or so necessary to retain Mussina to sign a pair of quality pitchers, allowing it to compensate for Erickson's absence as well. But pitching will be scarce in this winter's free-agent market.

"What are they going to do?" he asked recently, meaning nothing and meaning everything at the same time.

From behind his shades, Mussina contemplates life without Camden Yards and Baltimore. There is a protracted pause rather than a cynic's dry humor.

"This is a great place to play," Mussina said a day before he was to make his 32nd start of the season last night against the Seattle Mariners. "It's a place you enjoy coming to, even on days when you're not scheduled to pitch. I've always enjoyed being here. I think that's obvious."

He has heard criticism cascade from the stands this season but he also has heard the louder support from behind the first base dugout. He has heard fan irritation because he rejected a contract that guarantees security for him, his children and his grandchildren, but says he has never sensed rejection. He thinks about what he might miss after Sept. 27 and the Oakleys never move.

"I've always enjoyed support here," he said. "Maybe I've felt it even more the last couple years. I appreciate that. I do. That hasn't changed."

Reminded that the season's most emotional moment might await in two starts, Mussina jumps the dugout steps, turns, and says, "You might be right."

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