Moose was a bargain in pinstripes
Mike Mussina is expected to announce his retirement as early as Thursday
Moose was one of the best long-term investments the Yankees ever made
More often than not, Mussina was the ace that few acknowledged him to be
By Christmastime of 2000, Mike Mussina was already 32 years old. He had been on five All-Star teams. He was a perennial American League Cy Young candidate. Everybody loved him. Everybody wanted him. "Moose" had 10 years in the league with the Orioles by that time. He had racked up 147 wins. He was the Orioles' future. He was, in every sense of the word, an ace.
And so the Yankees, as they seem to do so naturally, snatched him away, offering the free agent a six-year, $88.5 million contract in the winter of 2000 to come pitch in the Bronx. And Mussina, seeing the mess the Orioles were about to become, hurriedly took the deal, much to the horror of his fans in Baltimore.
("It's like a lot of fans have been stabbed," O's pitcher Chuck McElroy said at the time, "and that wound is going to be hard to heal." That wound, it seems, is still not healed.)
In the end, despite all the gnashing about leaving Baltimore and the outrageous size of the deal and having to deal with the supposed pressures of pitching in New York, signing one of the richest contracts ever offered to a pitcher was exactly the right move for Mussina. For the Yankees, it turned out ever better. It became one of the best long-term investments that they have ever made.
I know. We all know. Mussina never won a World Series with the Yankees. He never won one at all. In 17 postseason games with the Yanks, he had a losing record (5-7). He had a so-so postseason ERA in New York (3.80). He was never considered the "ace" of the staff, not like he was in Baltimore. He was never Roger Clemens or Andy Pettitte or even David Wells. Lately, he wasn't even Chien-Ming Wang.
No, he never won a Series, but Mussina, over the course of his eight years with the Yankees, proved to be more valuable than any of those pitchers ever were in their time in New York. He was steady when the Yankees were shaky. He was a veritable bargain when they were throwing money away on Kevin Brown, Carl Pavano, Jeff Weaver and, at times, even the great Clemens. He was dependable when no one else was.
It's a funny thing with Mussina. When he announces his retirement, as he is expected to do later this week, he will be widely hailed as a Hall of Fame-type pitcher. His 270 wins and lifetime 3.68 ERA alone scream that. Yet many, especially in New York, will continue to see his time with the Yankees only in the black and white of Series won and lost.
It's a shame, really, because considering what he has done for the Yankees, and considering what the Yankees spent on him that winter eight years ago -- the same winter, it should be pointed out, that Mike Hampton finagled $121 million out of the Rockies, and just a couple of winters after Denny Neagle and Darren Dreifort and Kevin Brown signed notoriously bad, long-term contracts -- the Yanks absolutely cleaned up in this deal. There should be no debating that.
No, Mussina never won a Series. But in his eight years there -- including two after that first contract ran out when he signed a $23 million deal -- Mussina went 123-72, with a 3.88 ERA in New York. He averaged 31 starts a season. He averaged more than 194 innings a year. He won better than 63 percent of his decisions.
No, Moose never got a ring. But only three starters -- Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Randy Johnson -- had a better winning percentage than that during those years. Only Oswalt won more games in those eight years. Only Johnson had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio.
We can go on and on, but this is what this comes down to: Mussina didn't win a Series while in New York -- the Yankees lost in 2001 to the Diamondbacks and in 2003 to the Marlins and haven't been back since -- but he did more than any pitcher in pinstripes in his time to get them there. Nobody started more games for the Yanks, won more or had a better ERA in that time than Moose. For most of his time there, he was the ace that few acknowledged him to be.
Back on Sept. 29, on the last day of his 18th season in the big leagues, Mussina beat the Red Sox in Boston to notch his 20th win of the season, becoming the oldest first-time 20-game winner in major league history. Even then, he talked about retirement.
"Ninety-nine percent of the players don't get to make that choice for themselves. They play the game and somebody else tells them it's time to go," he said then. "I've been really lucky that I'm in a situation where if I decide enough is enough, then I get to decide for myself."
Mussina, according to the reports floating around Wednesday, has finally had enough. For eight nearly great years, he gave the Yankees everything that he had. He certainly gave them everything that they paid for.
In New York, as it should be everyplace else, that's all that a team -- or a set of fans -- can ask for.