Manhattan at twilight, rich with possibilities, awaited him like a buffet spread before a medieval king. Take from it what you wish, the New York Yankees told Mike Mussina last Thursday. Dinner reservations? A Broadway show? A chauffeured car? A five-star hotel? The Yankees would make his every wish come true. This was his baseball wedding night, Mussina having only minutes before used a cheap plastic pen borrowed from a secretary's desktop to sign his name to a six-year, $88.5 million commitment to play for the Yankees, culminating a romance that would outdo Danielle Steel.
Mike, with his wife, Jana, at his side, stepped out of Yankee Stadium into the chill of the advancing night. The brisk air felt good after nearly three hours of interrogation and picture taking by the New York media. "It was about what I thought, maybe a little more," Mussina said of the spotlight. "I've pitched in All-Star Games and postseason games, and that's how I'm going to treat every one of my starts."
Now it was time to celebrate. At this, the crowning hour of his career, there was but one place he craved: home. Manhattan be damned, he was bound for Montoursville, Pa. (pop. 4,594), which offers four hotels, 16 churches and the same small-town, central Pennsylvania upbringing for their two children that he and Jana enjoyed. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner provided his car, a Cadillac, and his driver, Joe Flannino, to take the Mussinas to Steinbrenner's time-share jet at Teterboro ( N.J.) Airport, whence they would be flown the 25 minutes to Williamsport, Pa.
Jana had been to New York City only once. Mike hadn't ventured out much on his trips there during his 10 big league seasons, all with the Baltimore Orioles, and had avoided Manhattan on a two-day recruiting visit earlier in the week. He saw only his hotel room in suburban Rye Brook, N.Y.; a restaurant in Greenwich, Conn.; and a doctor's office (where he underwent a physical) in Manhasset, N.Y.
Now only one obstacle remained: the George Washington Bridge at five o'clock. At that hour the Hudson can be tougher to cross than the Kwai. But as the Cadillac hummed onto the span, something happened that would have seemed bizarre had it not been in keeping with the Yankees' script for persuading Mussina to betray his small-town allegiances for Gotham. An impossibly clear expanse of roadway lay ahead, just begging to be enjoyed at the decadent pace of 50 mph. "Uh, this is unusual," Flannino noted to the out-of-towners.
Mussina, in search of financial security, a World Series championship ring, a franchise within easy commuting distance of his hometown and, most of all, a strong sense of being wanted, had come to the right place. The wooing and signing of Mussina made two lessons as clear as this night's GWB: Pitching is more valuable than ever, and the Yankees play as well in November as they do in October.
In the first moments after their fourth world championship parade in five years, Yankees executives considered Mussina, lefthander Mike Hampton and outfielder Manny Ramirez to be their top free-agent targets on whom to use David Cone's $12 million salary (and then some) that at season's end came off their $112 million payroll. (As of Monday, Cone, a free agent, was deciding whether to accept New York's offer of a one-year contract for $500,000 plus performance incentives.) They quickly ruled out Hampton, who they figured would sign with a National League team, and Ramirez, who demanded "between $18 million and $20 million a year," according to a Yankees source. (Each was still unsigned as of Monday.)
Mussina brought stellar credentials to the market. His 11-15 record last year for the 74-88 Orioles, the first full-season losing mark of his career, was as deceptive as one of his devastating curves. His 3.79 ERA was third in the American League, and his run support, 3.71 per nine innings, was the lowest among the league's starters. Moreover, the cerebral Stanford graduate fit New York's preferred profile: a low-maintenance, reliable player—he pitched a league-leading 237? innings last season and has never had arm trouble—who enhances the Yankees' philosophy that pitching is the mortar of championships.
Says New York general manager Brian Cashman, "I still hear some general managers say they'd never trade an every-day player for a pitcher. That might have been true 30 years ago. The opposite is true now. Pitching is just too scarce."
Three of the five highest-paid players in baseball are pitchers, including Yankees righthander Roger Clemens ($15.45 million per year) and Mussina ($14.75 million). The other is Los Angeles Dodgers righthander Kevin Brown ($15 million). Two years after Brown signed his deal, New York got a pitcher who's two years younger than Brown was when he signed (Mussina will turn 32 on Friday) and has a better career record (147-81 to Brown's 139-99 at the time). "They didn't just get a great pitcher," says one agent of New York's coup, "they got a great deal."