After 6 years of waiting and wondering, Mussina got elected to the Hall
(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the 14th story in a 17-part series looking at Mike Mussina’s journey from Montoursville to the National Baseball Hall of Fame)
Just a week earlier the National Baseball Hall of Fame informed Mike Mussina that a representative would only call him on Hall of Fame selection day if he was becoming a new member.
So five minutes after the Montoursville boys basketball coach concluded his team’s practice last Jan. 22, Mussina was stunned when he heard his phone ringing, looked down and saw it was the Hall of Fame calling. Mussina remembered what was said, but never expected he would be picked. It must be a courtesy call.
“I’m thinking, ‘You have to be kidding.’ My first thought was they’re being nice,” Mussina said. “They’re calling to tell me it was really close, but you didn’t get it.”
But Mussina was wrong. His life had changed. He was no longer just former Major League pitcher Mike Mussina. He was Hall of Famer Mike Mussina.
In his sixth year of eligibility, Mussina had been chosen to join baseball’s most elite fraternity. He needed 75% of the vote to earn his place and received 76.7, clearing the hurdle by seven votes.
Often, film crews will be there filming when athletes are selected to the Hall of Fame. This time it was just Mussina and a few basketball coaches around. The problem was the official announcement was not coming for another hour when the MLB Network aired its Hall of Fame show. Mussina had to escape Montoursville High School without letting inquiring minds learn his fate. He told a few white lies before youngest son Peyton finished changing after practice and together they made a quick escape.
Scrambling to eat dinner before watching the show, the Mussina’s stopped at McDonald’s. Mussina celebrated earning baseball’s ultimate honor with a double cheeseburger. It seemed a near perfect way for a player who always kept a low profile to reach such hallowed ground.
“I don’t know if surreal is the right word to describe it, but I was not expecting them to call,” Mussina said. “I knew I was doing well voting-wise, but nobody thought I was going to make it and jump from 63 to 75 without it being my last year on the ballot.”
Mussina retired in 2008 after winning 270 games with the Orioles and Yankees. He is one of only 15 pitchers who ever won at least 100 more games than he lost, finishing 270-153. He also won at least 15 games 11 times, won seven Gold Gloves, earned five All-Star selections and suffered just one losing season in his 17 full years playing. Mussina closed his career with one of his best performances, going 20-9 with a 3.37 ERA and finishing sixth in the Cy Young voting.
Still, it took voters a while to start appreciating Mussina’s achievements. He received 20.3 percent of the vote when he first appeared on the 2014 ballot. Thus started a process which started slow but had gathered momentum as 2019 approached. His percentage went up to 24.6 percent the following year before jumping to 51.8 percent by 2017. That is when it started hitting Mussina that the Hall of Fame was becoming a real possibility.
“The first couple years I knew there were some obvious first-ballot guys. Greg Maddux was on there, (Tom) Glavine, (Randy) Johnson, (Ken) Griffey, (John) Smoltz, so my first thought process was ‘please give me 5% so I can stay on for another year’ and I got a little over 20 percent the first year which I thought wasn’t bad,” Mussina said. “The third year it jumped up over 30 and then it started going up by 12 percent a year. I thought can it jump that high again? Then it jumped a lot and I thought, ‘Wow it’s over 50 percent. It’s getting serious now.'”
When Mussina received 63.5 percent on his fifth try, it started looking like 2019 might be the year he makes it. The public voting trackers consistently had Mussina hovering around 80 percent in the weeks leading up to the vote. That was a good sign, but history has shown when the private votes are added that the number usually drops by 7-10 percent. It was apparent that however the vote went, it was going to be a close call.
And Mussina was resigned to the fact that a process that started in 2014 might carry on for another year.
“I’m thinking it’s going to be close, but it’s not going to happen. The guys at the MLB Network were saying Edgar (Martinez), Roy (Halladay) and Mo (Mariano Rivera) were going to make it and that I was going to fall below 75 percent and I was agreeing with them. I couldn’t believe it when they called and said I was in. When they told me I was in I was like, ‘what do I do now?'”
Some of those first-ballot selections since 2014 cleared space and boosted Mussina’s chances. More importantly, more voters started understanding how good Mussina was. He did not have a magic baseball number like 300 wins and did not have a World Series ring or a Cy Young. But Mussina was as consistent as any pitcher ever has been, pumping out winning seasons like they were coming off an assembly line. He played in two World Series and was a part of seven division champions. He was the Steady Eddie Murray of pitching, but Murray had those magical numbers like 500 home runs and 3,000 hits.
That might be why Mussina’s climb was slow at first. The more voters looked, though, the more they liked, especially in the analytic era. Mussina was never a self-promoter when he played or when it came to the Hall, but others took up his cause and the percentages started growing.
And while Mussina did not win 300 games, his 270 victories looks more special every year. There may never be another 300-game winner and surpassing Mussina’s 270 wins is looking mighty daunting for today’s great pitchers.
CC Sabathia is retiring at season’s end and is at 251 wins, so he will not catch Mussina. Justin Verlander is still going strong in his 15th season, but is only at 215 and is 36. Clayton Kershaw has been dominant throughout his career, but has battled multiple injuries, is 31 and is at 161 wins. Max Scherzer is 34 and has 168 wins. The last three are potential first ballot selections and Sabathia seems a near Hall of Fame lock, but there is a good chance none of those players matches Mussina’s 270 wins. That alone drives home how good Mussina was.
“The first couple of years I didn’t want to follow it because I was getting concerned, but a lot of people’s minds changed because they started looking at the numbers and realizing this guy was really good,” Mussina’s Stanford coach Mark Marquess said. “He didn’t get a lot of publicity because of the type of person he was, but it felt like they were starting to see the numbers were so good and it made sense because people didn’t realize he did everything that he did. I’m glad it worked out. It’s super and he’s well-deserving.”
“We’ve been watching every year when the Hall of Fame vote comes up and everyone was on the edge of their seats,” said Loyalsock basketball coach Ron Insinger, whose Lancers play Mussina’s Warriors at least twice a year. “I don’t think there was a person in the entire area that wasn’t thrilled when we learned that he had made it. Everyone was pulling and cheering for Mike.”
That has continued since last January’s announcement and there will be a strong local presence at Sunday’s induction ceremony in Cooperstown. Mussina is still finalizing what he will say to those locals in attendance as well as the millions more watching worldwide. There is so much to say and so little time.
“We’ve been working on the speech for probably about six weeks,” Mussina said. “The problem is every three days I think of something else I want to say or a different way of saying it or a different story I want to include.”
Whatever he says, Mussina’s legacy is secure. The waiting is over and the word is out. He is a baseball legend.
“Mike has earned it,” Mussina’s high school coach Carter Giles said. “He did it the right way and he deserves all the praise.”