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Mussina quickly became Stanford’s top pitcher, leader

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth story in a 17-part series looking at Mike Mussina’s journey from Montoursville to the National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Mike Mussina spent his final two years as a Montoursville student being labeled a top college baseball prospect.

When he landed in Palo Alto as a Stanford freshman in September of 1988, Mussina was no longer a prospect. He was a Cardinal and it was time to show that all those who pegged him for greatness were right. Not that Mussina was thinking about that. His immediate goal was much simpler.

“It’s a giant adjustment and, really, at the beginning you’re not even really worried about baseball. Luckily for me, baseball is in the spring so you get to go to school in the fall and get acclimated. You get to be a student playing baseball for a while before you become a baseball guy who’s going to school at the same time,” Mussina said. “When you’re a brand new college student you’re not worried about being defending national champs. I just want to survive. I’m 3,000 miles from home, I never have done this before. I want to handle this life and then you worry about am I good enough to play? That’s kind of how it was my first four or five months there.”

But when the time did come, Mussina was as good as advertised.

Stanford captured the 1987 College World Series so Mussina cracking the 1988 rotation was never a sure thing. Maybe being 3,000 away was not easy, nor was adjusting to a new life. Still, when Mussina was on the mound, everything clicked. Whether he was back home at Stanford or on the moon, he could focus on the task and deliver. It was not shocking then that he quickly became entrenched as the team’s No. 2 starter that spring, pitching nearly every weekend. He went 9-4 with 84 strikeouts and Stanford heated up once the postseason arrived.

Stanford again reached the College World Series and Mussina was a major reason why. A year earlier, Montoursville was stunned and been eliminated in the district semifinals. This time, Mussina left a champion. Stanford won a second straight national championship and Mussina showed how good he could be on the biggest collegiate stage.

Ironically, it was following a loss that season in which Stanford coach Mark Marquess was most impressed with Mussina. Future Olympic Gold Medalist and Toronto Blue Jay third baseman Ed Sprague made a costly error late error which allowed the go-ahead runs to score in a 3-2 Cardinal loss. Marquess already knew Mussina was uber competitive, but he learned following the defeat how good a teammate Mussina was and how he was consistently able to make those around him better players.

“There was no pitch count back then so we wouldn’t attempt to take Mike out because he was so competitive and even as a freshman every time he pitched you never knew if we were ahead or behind because he had the same demeanor. He was phenomenal,” Marquess said. “But what really impresses me and what I’ll never forget is we lost a game when Ed, who was a really good third baseman made an error that cost us and they asked Mike in the press conference about what he thought of Ed’s error. That’s a tough question for anyone, let alone a freshman. Mike said, ‘Obviously, you’re not aware of how many times he has saved me during the season. That doesn’t bother me at all because of all the times he saved my bacon.’ That showed what type of man Mike was.”

Mussina might not have been the most vocal player, but it was actions like which made him a team leader over the next two seasons. He helped Stanford win the PAC-10 championship in 1990 as it again reached the College World Series. Mussina went 14-5 that year and was 25-12 in three years at Stanford, routinely pitching against some of the country’s best teams.

Oh yeah, Mussina also was taking extra classes at one of the nation’s finest universities so he could graduate early.

“The challenge you have at Stanford is that you can’t recruit all the great players because the academic requirements are so stringent. It was a great fit for him with his academic excellence and he was not afraid of the academic reputation,” Marquess said. “Sometimes that can be a detriment. Because of the academics you might start thinking too hard and that can take away from baseball, but he was not worried about that. He was a great fit for Stanford. He was a great student and everything we were looking for. Our job was just to show why he was a great pick.”

Stanford did its job well because as 1990 progressed Mussina started looking like a near-lock to be a first-round draft pick. Mussina had carefully mapped out his first three years at Stanford. Receiving a college degree was important and the quicker Mussina could earn it, the less he had to worry about it once his pro career began. Ultimately, Mussina needed only a few more credits following the 1990 college season and graduated in the fall of that year.

If baseball did not work out, Mussina had peace of mind knowing he had a Stanford economics degree. As far as backup plans go, it was quite an ace in the hole.

“My freshman year being a starter from the beginning and throwing all year and having a decent season, you start figuring out that if they (Major League teams) were here when I was 18, they will be back when I’m 21 as long as I’m healthy, so let’s make a plan to get through school as early as possible,” Mussina said. “If I sign after my junior year I won’t have much to get done because I’m not going through Stanford University and not coming out with a degree. It takes one throw to end my career or one bad break somewhere and my career could be over. I got ahead far enough that it took just one quarter to go back and graduate.”

Before he received that degree, Mussina started showing his Hall of Fame pitching form. The Orioles again drafted Mussina, this time with the 20th pick in the first round. It speaks volumes about his ability and the Orioles’ confidence that Mussina made his professional debut with Class AA Hagerstown. He was not there long either, going 3-0 with a 1.49 ERA before AAA affiliate Rochester called him up. Mussina pitched two games there, as well as in the playoffs, finishing his first Minor League season 3-0 with a 1.46 ERA.

Mussina opened 1991 with Rochester but again, he would not play a full season there. The crafty right-hander went 10-4 with a 2.87 ERA, striking out 107 in 122 innings. Again, Mussina was ahead of the curve. Outside of two rehab starts later in his career, Mussina was done with Minor League Baseball. He had thrown just 177 2/3 innings and was all it took for the Orioles to know how well they had used that top 1990 draft pick.

The Orioles were struggling through what would become a 67-95 season and needed help. They knew Mussina could help and called him up late that July. Mussina was about to take a giant step toward the Hall of Fame.

“All his teammates would rave about the guy. They love Mike Mussina,” Marquess said. “If you’re a position player you want Mike Mussina pitching for you. He will be prepared and ready to go. He’s a team guy and he will always give your team a chance to win.”

The Orioles would learn how true that was over the next 9 1/2 seasons.

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