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Winning PITCH
Tom Verducci
December 11, 2000
Sure, the $88.5 million had a lot to do with Mike Mussina's decision to sign with the Yankees, but it was a call from manager Joe Torre that sealed the deal
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December 11, 2000

Winning Pitch

Sure, the $88.5 million had a lot to do with Mike Mussina's decision to sign with the Yankees, but it was a call from manager Joe Torre that sealed the deal

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Still, the Yankees, even though they made Mussina a whopping financial offer, worried that he would not come to the Big Apple. That changed on Nov. 7 when the phone rang at the Mussina house. "Michael, you're not going to believe it," said Jana after answering the call. "It's Joe Torre!"

Says Torre, the Yankees' Brooklyn-born manager, "I heard the rumor that he didn't like New York all that much because of the size of the city, and I didn't want that to be the deciding factor without letting him know there are places in Westchester [County] and Jersey where you can have quiet and space if you want."

"I could tell after Mike got off the phone how excited he was," Jana said on the way to Teterboro.

"That was probably the lead reason why I ended up here," Mike said.

Calls from Steinbrenner and Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, rightfielder Paul O'Neill and lefthander Andy Pettitte followed; the players soft-pedaled the city's forbidding image. The New York Mets also were in the bidding, and Mussina received calls on their behalf from recently resigned lefty reliever John Franco and former Mets pitching star (and current broadcaster, executive and special instructor) Tom Seaver. The Boston Red Sox jumped in with an offer that neared that of the Yankees, but the sincerity of the Yanks' quick first impression stuck with Mussina. The Orioles, mired in a streak of three losing seasons and negotiating in fitful, insufficient increments for the past year, never made him feel wanted.

As the Cadillac neared the airport, Mussina was asked when he figured he was gone from Baltimore. "Probably July," he said. "They traded all those guys [principally, shortstop Mike Bordick, first baseman Will Clark and leftfielder B.J. Surhoff], and no one came to me and said, 'Look, here's what's going on, here's our plan and here's how we want you to be a part of it.' It's funny, too. When Cal [Ripken Jr.] signed [on Nov. 1], he never called me. Never asked...anything."

The car turned into the airport. Once, Mussina was told, the Yankees were a difficult sell, what with a wild card of an owner and instability on the roster and in the managerial and coaching ranks. "That's exactly what the Orioles have become," said Mussina, who had five managers and seven pitching coaches over the past seven years. "Every year I'd have a new pitching coach, and methods changed. I'd take the first two or three months just to listen and then decide what to do. It would be May or June before I got a handle on things. The Mets? They reached the World Series, and they changed the whole coaching staff."

The Yankees are the gold standard. What beluga is to caviar and Boardwalk is to Monopoly, they are to baseball. Yes, they have gobs of money, but so do other clubs, and Mussina didn't want Mets money or Red Sox money or Orioles money. The Yankees are as close to a sure thing as the sport has, especially with a rotation that's so good, Mussina said he might not get to pitch in a Division Series—assuming a sweep behind Clemens, Pettitte and righthander Orlando Hernandez.

Mussina is fine with that. He's relieved to be rid of the pressure he felt "every start, every inning, every pitch" that came from being the ace on a poor Baltimore team. He is an analytical type who would not agree to allow Orioles owner Peter Angelos to trade him last summer because "I'm not the kind of person who can play the hired gun, who's expected to win every single time he pitches."

He's the career field goal record holder in Lycoming County high school football history (18 for Montoursville High). He may be the only red-blooded male in the county who feeds, not kills, deer. He's a father who wants his children—Kyra, 10, and Brycen, 2—to be "as lucky as I was to attend one school district while growing up." He's a pickup basketball player who held up negotiations for a full day by fighting with the Yankees for the right to play off-season games in the full-sized gym on his 100-acre property. (He won the right to do so every off-season up until Dec. 31.)

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