ALONG, QUIET, tense day at Camden Yards ended with the unlikeliest of scenes: Mike Mussina's mother answering reporters' questions and throwing a fastball into the heart of the debate.
"The hard part is he really did want to stay," Ellie Mussina said in a corridor outside the Yankees' clubhouse. "He really didn't want to leave."
A bright, outgoing woman who left her husband at home yesterday - "He couldn't take it," she said - she paused and looked down the hall at her oldest son, who was speaking to another pack of reporters after allowing one run in seven innings and beating the Orioles, 2-1, in his emotional return to Baltimore.
"But at the end of last season, he had no choice, really," Ellie Mussina said. "And I told him that. I told him, 'You're 32 years old; you aren't getting any younger. You need to test the market.' "
Like a good boy, he did what his mother wanted. And while Mussina's decision to test the free-agent market ended up ripping a hole in Baltimore's baseball heart when the pitcher defected to the Yankees, anyone looking at the situation with any objectivity can hardly blame him.
Just consider yesterday's game.
The win completed a four-game sweep for the Yankees that illustrated just how superior the defending World Series champions are to the Orioles, not that anyone needed to see this series before reaching such a conclusion. So Mussina is playing for a much better team now.
He also has a much better bullpen backing him up, as opposed to the Orioles' shaky 'pen of recent years. Mussina left yesterday's game with a one-run lead and his bullpen made it stand up, with dominant closer Mariano Rivera recording the final three outs. Talk about a brave, new world.
So, let's see, he's on a much better team with a much better bullpen, giving him a much better chance to win 20 games and get to the World Series - and of course, he's getting much more money from the Yankees than the Orioles offered.
In other words, as much as it surely hurts Orioles fans to admit it, the issue isn't why he would choose to go but, well, why wouldn't he?
Listen to Caitlin Fisher, 15, of Glen Burnie, who was among the hundreds of fans who lined up on the terrace overlooking the bullpen and shouted pros and cons as Mussina warmed up yesterday:
"I'm one of his biggest fans," she said, "and it doesn't matter to me if he went to the Yankees because it would have been career suicide if he had stayed with [the Orioles]. He'd never get to the Hall of Fame here. He'd never have gotten a [championship] ring. If you can't get it with one team, you should try to get it with another."
It's not quite that simple, of course. Money, family, lifestyle, career opportunities - everything goes into a pot.
"Many, many factors were on the table," Mussina said.
Such as having Rivera as his closer?
"That was one, absolutely," Mussina said. "I'm not going to lie about that."
Of course, no amount of such rational justifications would ever convince fans such as Todd Langenfelder, 33, of Ocean City, that Mussina did anything other than take the money and run.
"Sell-out!" Langenfelder shouted from the terrace as Mussina warmed up. "Hey, you're the first sellout we've had in this park all season!"
So it went before the game, as fans on both sides of the wrenching issue stated their cases within Mussina's earshot.
"You're a Communist!" screamed one fan wearing an Orioles T-shirt and holding up a sign with an unprintable message on it.
Anyone who signs an $88 million contract is, of course, a capitalist and not a Communist, but the comment still irritated a woman wearing Moose antlers and a button that said "Blame Peter," referring to Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos.
"Go back to Dundalk!" the woman yelled at the fan yelling at Mussina.
It seemed at that moment that a wild afternoon was about to unfold, the culmination of a debate that had raged for months. But then, oddly, the heat of the pre-game scene gave way to a sense of calmness and even serenity once the game began. Mussina received more cheers than boos when he was introduced, then elicited little reaction, pro or con, the rest of the way.
"It was about what I expected, a mixture of a lot of things," Mussina said. (Such as the mocking, "You're No. 3" chant that sounded several times, referring to his place on the Yankees' staff? "That was original - and it's true," Mussina said with a smile.)
In the end, he pitched effectively without dominating, then joined his teammates on the field for handshakes after the last out.
"All I said to him was, 'Nice going, Moose,' but you could see that he really wanted this one badly," Yankees manager Joe Torre said.
He wanted it and he got it.
"Is this win extra special?" someone asked.
"I have a lot of wins here," Mussina said.
The comment hung in the air, dripping with meaning.
Down the hall, Ellie Mussina was explaining to reporters how weird the day was, how funny some of the signs were, how kind the fans sitting around her were - but how wistful her family was.
He wanted to stay, she said calmly, no agenda hinted, no spin intended, just the facts as she saw them. He wanted to stay, but he didn't. And now that he was gone, well, who could blame him?