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Schmuck: Former Orioles ace Mike Mussina always had that Hall of Fame look about him

Former Orioles pitcher Rick Sutcliffe didn’t need a quarter of a century to figure out that Mike Mussina was a Hall of Famer. He just had to wait around like everybody else until it became official Tuesday night.

“He’s a Hall of Famer,” Sutcliffe said in a telephone interview just minutes before the announcement that Mussina would be among six players who will be inducted in Cooperstown, N.Y., in July. “I knew that when I left Baltimore in ’93. I played with a lot of them. I’ve seen a lot of Hall of Famers, and I knew that when I left in ’93.”

Sutcliffe could see signs of it when he joined the Orioles for the 1992 season. He was lured here by then-manager Johnny Oates, who knew he had a couple of special young pitchers in Mussina and Ben McDonald but didn’t want to saddle either one with the responsibility of being the No. 1 starter.

Mussina had made just 12 starts during his rookie season in 1991 and pitched very well. Sutcliffe got his first look in spring training of 1992, while the Orioles were preparing to open the season in brand-new Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

“With about two weeks to go in spring training, I went into Johnny’s office and said ‘Hey, you’ve made a mistake. I shouldn’t be pitching Opening Day. Mussina’s better than me,’ ” Sutcliffe said. “And Johnny goes, ‘Well Ben McDonald is better than you, too.’

“He was laughing as he said it, but he said, ‘They’re both better than you, but we need these guys to have great years. You pitching Opening Day will line you up with everybody else’s No. 1 pitcher and I have no doubt that you can hold your own, and we’re going to get above .500 on the shoulders of those two guys.’”

That’s just the way it worked out. Mussina went 18-5 in his first full major league season, led the majors in winning percentage and finished fourth in the balloting for the American League Cy Young Award. He also got some votes for AL Most Valuable Player.

“Johnny was absolutely right,” Sutcliffe said. “Those guys thrived and because of that the Orioles went from sixth place in ’91 to, I think, we were something like a game out on Sept. 1 in ’92.”

To be exact, Sutcliffe won 16 games, McDonald won 13 and the Orioles went from losing 95 games in 1991 to winning 89 games in ’92.

Still, Sutcliffe waited a respectable period — until after Mussina had pitched two full seasons in the major leagues — to reach the conclusion that the kid who was born in the town that birthed the Little League World Series would end up in the Hall of Fame.

“I’ve said that I’ve seen it four times, whatever ‘it’ is,’’ Sutcliffe said. “I saw it in 1988 or ’89 with Greg Maddux. The second time I saw ‘It’ — as I call it — it was Mike Mussina. I saw it with Jake Peavy and I’ve recently seen it with Kyle Hendricks. It would take a long paragraph to explain what ‘It’ is. Simply putting it, the tougher the situation, the least the catcher’s glove moves. The toughness and the command and focus and all of that. Those four guys jump out at me.”

Mussina barely exceeded the 75 percent threshold for election by the voting members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. He was named on 76.7 percent of the ballots, which means that he got in by a slim margin of just seven votes.

He had to wait six years for enshrinement, even though he spent a good part of his career with the best winning percentage among active pitchers, was a five-time All-Star, won seven Gold Gloves for defensive excellence at his position and finished in the top five in the balloting for the AL Cy Young Award six times.

No doubt, some voters had reservations because Mussina never won a Cy Young or a World Series ring and didn’t win 20 games in a season until his final one in 2008. But he was still an elite pitcher when he retired at 39 and could have stayed around a couple more seasons to make his candidacy a slam dunk with 300 career victories.

“There is so much that goes into, not only winning a game, but to be on a team that wins the World Series,’’ Sutcliffe said. “Just go back and look at what a fine line separates [championship teams]. Look at the Cubs in ’16. Look at what happened with Houston. There are so many things that go into that. That has nothing to do with any given player. I laugh at that because people who think that obviously don’t know much about the game of baseball.”

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

twitter.com/SchmuckStop

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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