NEW YORK - Free-agent pitcher Mike Mussina officially became an ex-Oriole yesterday, signing a six-year, $88.5 million contract with the New York Yankees that only strengthened the world champions' stranglehold on the American League while confirming his former club's extended fall.
In an appearance that he said was months in the making, Mussina donned Yankees pinstripes, a Yankees cap and the look of a contender by taking his 147-81 career record to what likely becomes baseball's most formidable starting rotation.
"There have been only a couple years in my career when I knew we were going to win," Mussina said after an afternoon news conference. "That's what I look forward to experiencing again."
Rumored for months, Mussina's divorce from the Orioles became official after four weeks of intense lobbying and negotiations with the game's dominant franchise.
Mussina, who once voiced a desire to play his entire career in Baltimore, embraced the Orioles' fiercest rival yesterday without hesitation or regret. After two years of halting talks with the Orioles, the admitted small-town homebody found his most comfortable match with the biggest team in the biggest city.
"The Yankees did more in the last month than the Orioles did in the whole time we were negotiating," he said. "That impressed me."
Mussina's contract contains no deferred money and includes a $12 million signing bonus - representing nearly 60 percent of his just-expired three-year, $20.45 million deal with the Orioles. The bonus will be paid in $2 million installments over the life of the contract. Mussina will be paid $8 million in 2001, $9 million in 2002, $10 million in 2003, $14 million in 2004 and $17 million each in 2005 and 2006.
The Yankees hold an option for 2007. If they exercise it, Mussina will be paid $17 million. The club can buy out the option for $1.5 million.
Pivotal to the deal was blanket no-trade protection for the life of the contract. Mussina's agent, Arn Tellem, haggled Tuesday with the Yankees over the provision and eventually won. "There could not have been a deal without it," Tellem said yesterday.
The contract at least temporarily makes Mussina the game's third-highest-paid pitcher and its fifth-highest-paid player. Among pitchers, his $14.75 million average salary trails only new teammate Roger Clemens ($15.4 million) and former teammate Kevin Brown ($15 million), now with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Carlos Delgado ($17 million) and Atlanta Braves third baseman Chipper Jones ($15 million) are the top-salaried position players.
Orioles majority owner Peter Angelos called the size of the contract prohibitive. Mussina said money was not the determinant, citing what looks to be the Orioles' protracted rebuilding period and the Yankees' zeal to improve a three-time world champion.
"I think I'm in a little different place as far as rebuilding," Mussina said, obliquely referring to his former team's three consecutive fourth-place seasons. "These guys have the momentum, and the Orioles are looking to get some players and regain some momentum."
Barely two years after the Orioles put together the American League's most expensive roster, Angelos said the Yankees' industry-high revenue stream put him in a no-win predicament.
"The only reason the Yankees can do it is because they have the potential to get $100 million in cable revenues while the Orioles settle for about $25 million," said Angelos. "Give me the $100 million that they've got, and Mike Mussina would still be in Baltimore."
Angelos employed a ponderous, stepladder approach to negotiations, initially offering $50 million over five years, improving it in February to $60 million over five years with $10 million deferred, then in August adding a sixth year to a $72 million proposal.
Angelos made his final improvement several weeks ago, jacking the deal to $78 million over six years with $12 million deferred at no interest.
Mussina likened the approach to that taken with former Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, who signed with the Texas Rangers in December 1998 after becoming frustrated with the slow pace of talks during the season.
"I loved playing there. It wasn't about the money," Mussina said. "I stepped back a couple years ago and watched them drag Palmeiro's deal out to the end and then jump in and try to make the last-second steal. It didn't work out that time. I told everybody in spring training I expected it to be long. I didn't expect something to be done in spring or in May.
"I expected it to be at the end of the year. That was the way I looked at it. I just didn't take into account the fact they were going to make a big change in the direction they were going at the end of July.
"Waiting as long as I did with nothing happening, it was just disappointing. If they really wanted me to come back, I think they would have done a little more."
Yankees president Randy Levine called Mussina's signing "a great, great day for the Yankees," noteworthy enough for manager Joe Torre, general manager Brian Cashman and revered Yankees Hall of Fame catcher Yogi Berra to gather at the dais with the third-winningest pitcher in Orioles history.
Mussina modeled his familiar No. 35 - Berra's original number before adopting his signature No. 8 - which was handed over by reliever Clay Bellinger. "We needed more Italians," quipped Berra.
The sight of Mussina donning pinstripes would have been unimaginable to Orioles fans - and Mussina himself - until recently. Even after filing for free agency, Mussina did not anticipate the Yankees asserting themselves as his most persistent suitor.
"This isn't how I thought it would end up," he said.
But only several days after Mussina filed for free agency, Torre phoned the pitcher at his Montoursville, Pa., home and conveyed his sincere desire for the Orioles ace to consider New York.
The suddenness and the sincerity of Torre's call stayed with Mussina, who later received calls from Yankees players, including Derek Jeter and Paul O'Neill.
"New York was the best fit for me," Mussina said, standing before a barrage of camera flashes inside the Stadium Club. "It just came down to who really seemed to want me on their team the most. Joe Torre called me not even a week after the World Series before he went on vacation. To me, that was a pretty big gesture."
Mussina said yesterday that he would have accepted Angelos' last proposal had it been made "before the All-Star break," but added that the late July purge of a veteran clubhouse altered his outlook.
Citing the trades of left fielder B.J. Surhoff and shortstop Mike Bordick, Mussina wondered about the club's direction. Little he has heard since has changed his mind.
"A light flashed" after the Bordick and Surhoff trades "that they wanted to do something else. If they would have been able to trade me, I think they would've," said Mussina, who blocked any such attempt by refusing to yield his no-trade protection.
At various times, Angelos and vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift laid out their long-term vision for the retooling franchise. Mussina said he never was convinced.
"I had an idea, but did I think they could pull it off?" Mussina asked rhetorically. "Their No. 1 idea was to get me back, but they didn't really try. If they were really serious about doing all that, as soon as they traded everybody, they would have come to me and said, 'Look, this is what we want to do. We want to sign you back. Let's do it so we can start building this team back up.' That's obviously not the way things went down. I loved playing in Baltimore, but sometimes you've got to make a change."
Tellem said he gave Angelos a "courtesy" call Friday and described where negotiations stood with other clubs. Angelos reiterated that his offer would not improve. At that point, the Orioles confirmed their status as secondary players, according to Tellem.
"From our perspective, we gave them plenty of opportunities along the way to make a deal, and they chose not to," said Tellem.
Mussina's defection illustrates a philosophical shift for his former team. Once willing to spend $65 million to wrest free-agent outfielder Albert Belle from the Yankees, yesterday Angelos offered a convert's perspective.
"I don't believe people come out to watch individual performances. Baseball is a team game; it's not an individual star game."
Sun staff writer Peter Schmuck contributed to this article.