It probably won’t surprise anyone to hear that there are still some local fans who aren’t ready to forgive soon-to-be-inducted National Baseball Hall of Famer Mike Mussina for ditching the Orioles and signing with the evil New York Yankees nearly 19 years ago.
Baltimore sports fans have had abandonment issues since the Colts slithered out of town on that dark and stormy night in 1984. There also is an aging generation of fans here still smarting from the way the New York Jets and Mets broke their hearts in 1969. That haunted history provided the backdrop for the civic angst generated by Mussina’s departure.
Mussina knew at the time that there would be a Baltimore backlash, but he said during his HOF conference call Friday that the decision to sign with the Yankees was never meant as an affront to his Oriole fans. He pointed to a host of factors that turned his free-agent journey northward, most of them competitive in nature.
“When I made the change from Baltimore to New York, I knew that it was not going to be taken well in some places," he said, “but I was making the change for me and my family and what I felt was the best move for my baseball career. So, some stuff you have to push to the side and not use it as a factor.”
The situation was a little more complicated than that, of course. The Orioles had gotten a hometown discount when Mussina signed a three-year, $21 million extension in 1997 to stay in Baltimore two years beyond his first year of free-agent eligibility. It was such a good deal for the team that Mussina and agent Arn Tellem were criticized by some union members for agreeing to it.
The next time around, the Yankees threw a ton of money at Mussina — $88.5 million over six years — and Orioles managing partner Peter Angelos reportedly stopped bidding at $78 million, which included a big chunk of deferred money. Throw in the fact that the Orioles were well into a competitive downturn that would eventually stretch to 14 straight losing seasons and, well, the Yankees were the Yankees.
“There were a lot of factors that went into the side to go to the Yankees," Mussina said. “Obviously, how well they were doing. They had just won three World Series in a row, so yes, I thought my chances of getting to the World Series were pretty good there. I thought the team was stable. It was the same coaching staff. All of those things, you’re looking for…the players, [who] you’re going to be involved with for two thirds or three quarters of the year.”
Orioles fans were hoping that loyalty would trump all that, but ask yourself this question: What would I do if I were offered a better job for better money in a situation with a much better chance to reach my ultimate career goals?
(I know the answer to that question because I got my first real job at my hometown newspaper in Southern California, which was the same newspaper I delivered as a kid, and after 13 years covering baseball there I got a nice job offer from a very good paper in Baltimore. That was back in 1990, coincidentally the year that the Orioles drafted Mussina with their first pick in the June draft.)
Mussina did have some issues with the way the Orioles handled his pending free agency, but he’s a very analytical guy and the decision to leave the team wasn’t an emotional one. If so, he would likely be going into the Hall of Fame with a Yankees cap on his plaque.
Instead, he chose to have his plaque feature a cap with no logo on it out of respect for both organizations. He said last week that it took him “three or four minutes” to make that decision.
“Both organizations were tremendously involved in this,’’ he said, “and I don’t feel right picking one over the other. So, the decision to go in without picking one logo over the other logo, it’s the only decision I can make and feel good about.”
Time has largely healed this wound. Most Orioles fans were thrilled to see Mussina inducted into the O’s Hall of Fame in 2012. Many will be in attendance when he joins Yankees closer Mariano Rivera, Seattle Mariners star Edgar Martinez and fellow former Orioles Harold Baines and Lee Smith for Sunday’s Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony in Cooperstown.
In hindsight, it’s hard to argue against the notion that he made the right decision. If he had stayed in Baltimore, he likely would not have pitched in two World Series and made 17 more postseason appearances. He probably would not have won as many games during the Orioles’ lean years in the early 2000s. He might not be on that stage Sunday.
Hall of Fame induction ceremony
Sunday, 1:30 p.m.
TV/livestream: MLB Network/baseballhall.org