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Mussina deserves an ovation, not a Bronx cheer, today

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Rarely does a season advertise its most powerful moment on a Sunday afternoon in May. But never in Orioles history has a player of Mike Mussina's stature returned under circumstances similar to those that will follow him to the mound this afternoon at Camden Yards.

There are those who insist Mussina's relationship with Baltimore and its baseball population ended badly because he is now a damned Yankee. But they are wrong. The relationship lives, underscored by Mussina's Thursday afternoon news conference, his reunion with friends and former teammates and today's appearance in a great stadium that until recently pulsed every fifth day. Today will be like that.

Mussina spent Thursday breaking little new ground about his decision to leave the club that drafted him in 1990, hustled him to Baltimore after only 28 minor-league starts, then received 147 wins over 10 major-league seasons.

Only Jim Palmer (268) and Dave McNally (181) have won more games in orange and black than Mussina's 147. Only Palmer (2,212) amassed more strikeouts than Mussina's 1,535. No pitcher in franchise history - not Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Mike Flanagan nor McNally - could match Mussina's feat of leading the team in wins for five consecutive seasons (1992-96).

Mussina knows these things, not because he is consumed by his numbers but because he wanted to be woven into the fabric of this franchise's history.

On Friday, Mussina quietly greeted Mike Hargrove, Cal Ripken and his few remaining teammates on the first base side. Of the Orioles' current active roster, only 12 players spent an entire season in the same clubhouse.

"There are a few guys over there I've never seen before. They have a young club. I know [David] Segui's out now. His at-bats are being taken by somebody else. There are a couple guys ... I've never seen. They'll still be wearing black and orange. It'll still be somewhat strange."

Asked about the career memory of pitching against Ripken, Mussina answered perfectly, "I always thought it was just a career memory just playing with Cal, not necessarily having to pitch to him."

It was Mussina who started No. 2,132, just as it was Mussina who answered suggestions he lacked postseason fortitude by allowing only four runs in 29 innings in the 1997 Division Series and ALCS. Just as it was Mussina, criticized for "preserving" himself while leading the league in innings last year, who returned less than four weeks after suffering a gruesome injury from a liner in 1998.

That connection ended last November when Mussina accepted the Yankees' six-year, $88.5 million offer that included no deferred money. The Orioles had offered $78 million over the same term with $18 million deferred, a stipulation that made the average annual value about $2 million per year less than the Yankees' offer.

To some, the Yankees deal will always represent blood money. The week's talk shows have been filled with the chattering class insisting money shouldn't have mattered, or that it was OK for Mussina to leave for anywhere except the Bronx. They'll always believe the organizational mantra that Mussina's sole reason for leaving "begins with M and ends with Y." Yet this is the pitcher who signed an undervalued three-year extension in 1997 because he feared where free agency might take him.

Introducing facts or Mussina's personal history to argue against the claim does little good. He was one of us; now he's one of them. Case closed.

Mussina failed to give majority owner Peter Angelos last call, a pledge he made shortly after last season. "It was like calling somebody over and over to do something and them always having an excuse not to," Mussina said Friday. "After a while, you take the hint and stop calling."

To others, Mussina was just the most recent star left standing in the organization's checkout line because of a four-corners negotiating tack that frustrated Brady Anderson and Rafael Palmeiro before him. In Anderson's instance, waiting cost the Orioles two extra seasons on a five-year, $31 million deal the club now regrets. With Palmeiro, it cost the franchise good faith as he signed for less money with the Texas Rangers after waiting 10 months for the Orioles to match his asking price of $50 million over five years.

Dragging out the Mussina negotiations for more than two years allowed the matter to become complicated by last summer's clubhouse purge, a bloodletting that incensed Mussina when it came to include left fielder B. J. Surhoff and catcher Charles Johnson. "A little carried away" was how he described the front office's trade fervor.

"I don't think [staying] ever became less important to me. I think at the trade deadline when we traded six people it became apparent to me they had made the decision to do other things and go in a different direction," Mussina said.

"I kind of told myself at the time they were obviously trying to do something else. If they don't come to me in the near future and say, 'Look, we know we made all those changes but we want you to be part of it. Let's get this done so we can focus on all this other stuff we have to focus on.' ... If that didn't happen the first two weeks after that, it just made sense that things were probably going to be different come this season. And that's just the way things worked out."

But the rehash neither assuages those incensed nor satisfies those who miss Mussina's presence. The referendum comes today at 1:35 p.m. The Orioles will have their packed house. Those who stood, cheered and even wept over Mussina's last inning on Sept. 30 against the Yankees will have their final say.

Mussina knows there will two sides this afternoon no matter what he says or does. But if an imperfect season could be interrupted by a perfect moment, a grand baseball town would rise to greet Mussina when he appears for the bottom of the first inning. It would make him wait to face Brady Anderson and make him break his glower to acknowledge their appreciation. Then it will let him pitch. Then he is a Yankee.

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