The questions surrounding Mike Mussina found new gravity Thursday night. Four lockers away, Sidney Ponson glanced at the impressive rack of antlers over Moose's stall and wondered, "If you go, do you take the antlers with you?"
Mussina nodded in the affirmative.
Mussina tonight walks into the setting he hoped to avoid, but months ago concluded was inevitable when he makes what may well be his final start with the Orioles.
Before a Camden Yards crowd aware that it may be witnessing history, Mussina will confront the New York Yankees amid a public referendum and a private struggle on his place with the only organization he has known during a 10-year career.
There have been 287 starts and 146 wins since Mussina debuted Aug. 4, 1991, against the Chicago White Sox in a 1-0 loss. But none has been like this.
"It's not typical. It's the last start of an entire season. That in itself is not typical. And it hasn't been a typical season for me or for us," he says.
Despite the speculation and noise surrounding his pending free agency, Mussina has slipped through town quietly this season. What public opinion he does hear comes mostly secondhand.
"Once in awhile, I get somebody who tells me, 'I hope you're back,' or something like that, but I've never gotten much. I'm not 6-5 with the image like Cal [Ripken] has. I can get a long way before somebody figures out who it is," Mussina quipped.
How far away from Baltimore this winter may take Mussina remains uncertain. The Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves, Seattle Mariners, Boston Red Sox and Yankees are among those expected to enter the off-season auction for him. One thing is known: Mussina and the Orioles remain far apart in negotiations that have dragged for most of seven months.
Nearly seven months have passed since Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos improved his five-year, $50 million offer to $60 million over five years with $10 million deferred at no interest.
Earlier this month, Angelos revised the offer to $72 million - including $12 million deferred - over six seasons. Mussina classified it as "the same thing." Angelos withdrew the bid after the pitcher's agent, Arn Tellem, declined it.
Mussina cited Red Sox ace Pedro Martinez's six-year, $75 million deal as a baseline for negotiations last January. Angelos has yet to cross that threshold.
With the highest winning percentage of any right-hander in baseball history entering the season, Mussina has had to find gratification elsewhere.
He has suffered the worst run support of any American League starting pitcher, a contrast to 1996, when he won 19 games largely due to receiving the second-best run support (6.84 runs per 9 innings) in the league.
The Orioles have scored three runs or fewer in 21 of his 34 starts and averaged only 3.46 runs every nine innings he has pitched.
Mussina overcame the most recent outage last Sunday with 15 strikeouts and no walks in a 1-0 win over the Red Sox. It was the third 15-strikeout game of his career and his second this month.
During his 1-6 start to a 10-15 season, Mussina repeatedly dismissed suggestions that his contract status was infringing on his performance. He dares anyone to look at his strikeouts, innings pitched and ERA and extrapolate anything less than 15 wins.
He still considers 1996 his most trying season, even though he finished fifth in Cy Young balloting and came within a blown save of his only 20-win season.
Those who believe this year has beaten him down are guilty of short memories, he says.
"It was worse [in '96], mentally," recalled Mussina, who finished that inscrutable season 19-11, but with a career-high 4.81 ERA. "I just was not pitching well at all. I was winning games and we ended up making the playoffs and getting into the ALCS, but that was so tough to deal with.
"It's much easier to accept that I'm doing my job to the best of my ability while the stuff I can't control - stuff like runs - isn't working out. That year, I was not doing my job anywhere near what I expected to be doing. The team carried me the whole year. That bothers me more than this season has, did ... or will."
Instead, it's been Mussina who has carried much this season. He calls tomorrow's season wrap nothing short of "a relief." He expects to file for free agency in the two weeks after the World Series and wait for a club other than his own to set the market.
At that point, the Orioles will either be tossed into a financial district in which they've so far refused to tread or allow the third-winningest pitcher in franchise history to depart.
For now, the antlers stay.
"If I need to come back," said Mussina, "it will be at a somewhat later date."