Mussina’s induction is a community celebration

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the 15th story in a 17-part series looking at Mike Mussina’s journey from Montoursville to the National Baseball Hall of Fame)

Eric Giles now lives in Denver, but 33 years ago he was Montoursville’s starting catcher. While professional baseball scouts, college recruiters and fans swarmed the surrounding Montoursville field, it was Giles who had the best seat in the house, watching pitcher Mike Mussina start his Hall of Fame journey.

Giles caught Mussina for two years in high school and Legion baseball before playing at Mansfield University and moving west. Giles is one of many from Montoursville residents past and present who is excited that Mussina will finish his baseball journey Sunday in Cooperstown when he is inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He also is one who has a unique perspective when it comes to Mussina’s legacy.

“Being out here in Denver I name drop every once in a while and they are like, ‘You played with the Moose?'” Giles said. “I get a reality check that rest of the nation knows him as Moose and a Hall of Famer, but he is always just Mike in Montoursville.”

Maybe that is why Sunday is more than Mussina receiving baseball’s highest honor. It also is a community celebration, especially for the small town in which he grew up. Wherever he has gone, Mussina always has remembered Montoursville. He mentioned it early at his New York Yankees introductory press conference after signing as a free agent in 2000 and he always returned home each offseason. Once Mussina retired following the 2008 season, he again made Montoursville his permanent home and immersed himself in the community, coaching various youth and high school sports.

So Mussina going into the Hall of Fame puts Montoursville on a national stage. This is a chance for Montoursville and its 4,444 residents to take pride in everything it represents through a player who always has represented it so well. And Mussina gives all those growing up in Montoursville proof that a town’s size provides no barriers on what one can achieve.

“To have 5,000 or so people and to have a Hall of Famer, there are infinitesimal chances of that happening,” Montoursville native and former Major Leaguer Tom O’Malley said. “It shows that two guys from the same neighborhood in a small town can get to the majors and one can get to the Hall of Fame.”

“This is a tremendous honor,” Mussina’s Montoursville basketball coach Tim Shannon said. “This shows the quality of people we have and Mike getting into the Hall of Fame is a real honor for the entire town of Montoursville.”

Mussina is the greatest athlete Montoursville has ever produced and his induction shines a light on how good a sports town Montoursville has long been. O’Malley was drafted following his senior year at Montoursville in 1979 and made his Major League debut with the San Francisco Giants in 1982. He played nine years in the Majors before competing in Japan and becoming a legend there who won both the season MVP and the Japan Series MVP while leading the Yakult Swallows to the championship.

Mussina and O’Malley, who both wore No. 35 at Montoursville, are the town’s most recognizable baseball players, but the high school program is one of the state’s most storied and has produced nine draft picks as well as countless collegiate players. Montoursville captured the 1985 and 1992 state championships and has appeared in five, while also winning 15 district titles. The program has never experienced a losing season and has produced a District 4 record 35 straight playoff appearances.

“That’s a source of pride,” said Muncy girls basketball coach Ed Rogers, who played on both the ’85 championship team and the state runner-up squad a year later. “Carter (Giles) was one heck of a coach. Things didn’t always go your way, but there wasn’t anybody, whether a starter or reserve, who did not respect that guy.”

Not that Montoursville’s athletic success is limited to baseball. The girls soccer team captured the 2008 state championship and the girls basketball team reached state finals in 1999 and 2000. The football program has long been one of the district’s best and has won five district championships since 2005, while reaching the 1989 state final. The wrestling program has been outstanding and Gavin Hoffman won three straight state titles from 2016-18. Name a sport and Montoursville has made a strong impact.

The boys basketball team was one of the district’s best throughout the 1970s and 80s. Ironically, that program fell on hard times for most of the 2000s before Mussina became its coach in 2013 and led it to the 2018 District 4 Class AAAA championship.

Then there is Kelly Mazzante. She is to female athletics in Montoursville what Mussina and O’Malley are to male athletics. Mazzante scored 3,270 career points at Montoursville from 1996-2000 before becoming the Big Ten’s all-time leading scorer at Penn State and two time WNBA world champion. Athletes like those have epitomized what has made Montoursville so athletically strong for so long.

“I never felt like when we played that any of us thought that we would lose. We always went out thinking we’re going to win the game and it didn’t always work that way, but a lot of times it did,” said Jersey Shore girls basketball coach Darrin Bischof, a teammate of Mussina’s at Montoursville from 1983-87. “Nobody ever felt like this is going to be one we could lose. Even when we struggled, we felt that way. The community always has been that way.”

It likely will remain that way, too. Having athletes like Mussina, O’Malley and Mazzante sure helps. They dream big in Montoursville because they know greatness is attainable through a mix of talent, relentless work and commitment.

Mussina has earned the biggest prize, but through it all, he has kept his roots planted in Montoursville.

“It brought me to tears when he got into the Hall of Fame. Watching him when he was 9 years old to where he is now, it seems like he’s come full circle and that’s especially true with him coaching there now,” Eric Giles said. “When fame and fortune came, he was still a small-town guy. He’s always stayed grounded.”

“I came back every offseason. I had to get away from the high speed of the bigger city. I grew up here and I needed to decompress for a few months,” Mussina said. “I can’t imagine me coming from here and then living there full-time. It’s just not me.”

Mussina is Montoursville and Montoursville is Mussina.

And together they are going into the Hall of Fame.

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