Torre’s call planted seeds as Mussina became a Yankee

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the 10th story in a 17-part series looking at Mike Mussina’s journey from Montoursville to the National Baseball Hall of Fame)

His team just won its third straight World Series two nights earlier, but New York Yankees manager Joe Torre already was focused upon the next challenge.

The Yankees wanted to sustain their greatness and they immediately set their sights on a free agent pitcher who could help make that happen. The victory confetti had not even fallen yet and that is how Torre and the Yankees surprised Mike Mussina.

It might also be how they acquired him.

“The World Series ends and the Yankees beat the Mets and two days later Joe Torre calls and says we want you to come up,” Mussina said. “I said, ‘You guys just won the World Series, you didn’t go on vacation yet?’ He said, ‘No I’m going next week, but we want you to come up.’ That’s kind of how it started. First impressions are big sometimes and they were the first ones to call and they had just won the Series. They hadn’t had a parade and they were already looking ahead to the next season so I was impressed and that was about it.”

Mussina had just concluded his 10th season with the Orioles who were in a downward spiral that did not end until 2012. A change was coming, but Mussina did not want to travel far. He basically limited himself to East Coast teams as well as Cleveland. After leaving the dysfunction in Baltimore, it was hard envisioning a more stable team to go to than the Yankees who were the best team and had an owner with a seemingly unlimited wallet.

Torre’s call planted the seeds and Mussina became a Yankee. He stayed in New York for the final eight seasons of his Hall of Fame career, reaching two World Series, helping the Yankees capture six American League East championships and winning 123 more games.

Mussina ended his career in Hollywood-like fashion, winning his 20th game on the final day of the 2008 season in his last Major League appearance. That was in contrast to how his Yankees career began.

Mussina is a small-town man from Montoursville and going from Baltimore to New York was like throwing Andy Griffith into an episode of Breaking Bad. Instead of dealing with a small pool of reporters, Mussina was facing an army of them on a regular basis. There was a transition phase both had to endure.

“Once I got used to the media and once they got used to me we were fine. I had a good relationship with the media for probably 7 1/2 years. It just took a couple of months for me to get used to what was coming and for them to get used to me and my availability and waiting for me to get accustomed to New York,” Mussina said. “They’re a little more demanding and there’s more of them. It’s just the sheer number of them. When I was in Baltimore there were about six regular writers, in New York it’s 26 and it’s written, television and radio. It’s just more, but once you get used to it being like a playoff game every day, then it’s OK.”

The media was only part of the equation. More importantly, Mussina had to prove his value while playing for a three-time defending world champion. The media simply increased the high expectations that the team, front office, owner and fans had. In New York, if one does not win right away he can go from popular to public enemy in the blink of an eye. History is littered with outstanding players who went to New York and struggled, with Kenny Rogers, Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson and A.J. Burnett being prime examples.

There was a lot of pressure mounting as Mussina approached the 2001 season, but he would not let it overtake him. It was still baseball and on the mound, Mussina could focus just on that. He would continue thriving and would help the Yankees win another division, going 17-11 with a 3.15 ERA.

“There was a giant adjustment. I’m coming to a team that’s won three World Series in a row and four of five so there’s a lot of expectations. For whatever reason I could still make it just about on the field,” Mussina said. “The other stuff I could block out. The media is not going out on the field with me, the expectations of the fans aren’t going out there with me. It’s my expectations. If my expectations are as high or higher than everyone else, which they have been for most of my career, then this isn’t any different. It’s just a different uniform. That’s how I approached it.”

Although Mussina threw well early that year, a lack of run support hurt and he was 5-7 by June. Instead of growing frustrated, Mussina kept getting better and was dominant down the stretch, winning six of his final seven games as the Yankees held off the Red Sox and won their fourth straight division crown. During that stretch, Mussina came within one strike of throwing a perfect game at Boston, threw seven shutout innings against the Seattle Mariners who won an A.L.-record 116 games and was part of four shutouts. He threw a complete game shutout on Sept. 28 against the Orioles and allowed just one run in his final 20 innings, finishing the season second in ERA, strikeouts (214) and shutouts (3).

That dominance continued into the playoffs and Mussina delivered one of his most clutch performances in Game 3 of the American League Division Series against the Oakland A’s. Oakland held a 2-0 lead in the best of five series with the next two games being played on its home field. Most people remember Game 3 as the Derek Jeter flip game in which the shortstop sprinted across the infield, fielded a cutoff throw home and immediately flipped to Jorge Posada who tagged out Jeremy Giambi a split second before he crossed home and tied the game, 1-1.

What people often forget is how good Mussina was that night. Against one of the league’s most powerful offenses, he threw seven innings of shutout baseball, scattering four hits as the Yankees won, 1-0. New York rallied to win the Series, 3-2, and then took care of Seattle with Mussina throwing another gem in Game 2 as they reached their fourth straight World Series.

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that year, New York desperately needed a lift. Mussina and his teammates provided a huge one.

“We felt like we were part of the healing process, us and the Mets,” Mussina said. “It felt like people could come watch us and that could take their minds off what had just happened for a couple of hours.”

Some of New York’s biggest thrills came during one of the most memorable World Series ever played. The Yankees trailed 2-0 before winning three straight one-run contests. Games 4 and 5 were unforgettable with the Yankees tying both games in the ninth inning off home runs and then winning in extras. Tino Martinez tied it in the ninth in Game 4 before Jeter hit a walkoff homer in the 10th. A night later, Scott Brosius hit a two-out, game-tying home run and the Yankees won in 12 innings. Mussina threw eight outstanding innings that night, allowing just five hits and striking out 10.

It appeared the Yankees were destiny’s team and they were three outs from a fourth straight World Series title when the game’s best closer ever Mariano Rivera entered in the ninth inning protecting a 2-1 advantage. This time the Yankees were on the opposite end of a stunning comeback and Luis Gonzalez’s walkoff single gave Arizona a 3-2 victory and the championship.

“We get all the way to Game 7 and we lose. It was tough because I was in the clubhouse. They had the whole stage set up, they had the champagne in there,” Mussina said. “We were feeling pretty good, but we just didn’t get those three outs we needed.”

But Mussina would get another shot at a World Series. And two years later he would help the Yankees earn that shot by delivering one of the most sensational performances of his Hall of Fame career.

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