Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Mike Mussina Era

Moose thrive in cold temperatures, which makes sense given that Mike Mussina's relationship with Yankees fans has always been somewhere between chilly and Arctic.

At the age of 38, Mussina's time as a productive big-league pitcher appears finished. He has one year remaining on his contract, so the Yankees will give him every available opportunity to stay in the rotation in 2008. But his velocity and stuff have been in decline for several years, and a precipitous drop in K/9 this season indicates he can no longer make up for his declining physical skills with guile. After getting mercilessly pounded for three consecutive starts, Mussina seems resigned to the idea that he's about to get replaced. It's unlikely that he'll be a contributing member of the 2007 Yankees the rest of the way. No matter what happens next year, he'll never be an ace again, and I can't imagine he'll be as much as a league average pitcher either. A chapter closed last night in Detroit, if not the whole book.

The Yankees signed Mussina following a 2000 season that saw them faltering badly down the stretch, winning only 87 games, but recovering in time to win their third straight World Series. David Cone was on his way out the door after pitching egregiously poorly, and Denny Neagle was going with him. Brian Cashman and George Steinbrenner brought Mussina in on a six-year, $88.5 contract to anchor the staff for the foreseeable future, which is essentially what he did.

The definition of an ace is nebulous, and there aren't too many 1999-vintage Pedro Martinez stoppers floating around through baseball history. Some years, Mussina was the Yankees best pitcher. Others, he was second-best. He provided stability in a rotation that saw vast changes during his tenure. Ted Lily, Jeff Weaver, David Wells, Javier Vazquez, Jose Contreras, Kevin Brown, Esteban Loaiza, Jaret Wright, He Who Shall Not Be Named, Randy Johnson, Shawn Chacon and more have come and gone while Mussina has remained, easing into the stretch and bending awkwardly at the waist to check the runner on first.

As a Yankee, Mussina has gone 100-63, with a 3.96 ERA, a number inflated by this year's miseries. He's been very good, and very consistent. But he's never been great, never a legitimate Cy Young candidate, never been special. And for $88.5 million, Yankees fans wanted and expected him to be special. We could never accept him as a lower-tier ace or second option in a very good rotation.

Yankees fans never embraced Mussina because he wasn't what we wanted him to be. Sure, there were cheers when he pitched well, and occasional Moose calls with two strikes on the hitter, but there were many more shrugs, head shakes and sighs of disgust. It's true that Mussina never put up the 23-6, 2.75 season everyone wanted, but that's not the real reason he's not loved in New York.

Like many of the post-2001 Yankees, there's an air of ambivalence hovering about the relationship between Mussina and the fans. Much of this has to do with the widely mocked concept of "true Yankees." Mussina, along with Jason Giambi and many others, arrived in town just after an amazing run that produced magical moments and local heroes with stunning regularity. Every time you turned around, Scott Brosius was hitting a game-tying home run deep into the New York night, or Chad Curtis was becoming much, much more than just Chad Curtis. When the championships stopped, the magic seemed to cease as well, and the new breed of players bore the blame. I tend to side with those who think the very idea of a "true Yankee" ludicrous and hypocritical, but Mussina was never truly accepted into the club, wrong or right.

Beyond merely not winning a ring, though, Mussina never really seemed like one of us. Before he signed in New York, the media made much of his quiet nature, small-town proclivities and possible reluctance to come to the big city. When he eventually did sign, I wondered whether he was signing strictly for the money, agreeing to come to a place he didn't really want to be.

Yes, that's a ridiculous thing to think in this day and age of huge contracts and player movement. But I thought it nonetheless. I questioned his motives in ways that I never questioned David Cone's. I was naturally suspicious of Mussina from the start, and I know I wasn't alone.

Mussina's personality also didn't help matters. He quickly gained a reputation for being withdrawn, aloof, arrogant ("Who would they replace me with?")and sharp with reporters. And in New York, the media wields a powerful sword. When reporters hate a player, the public is likely to hate him soon enough. Michael Kay, in particular, has always done a very poor job of disguising his contempt for Mussina.

Reports leaked out of Baltimore and New York that Mussina begged out of games early, that he was unpopular with his teammates, that he had no heart. He faltered in several key post-season games (although his gutsy relief effort in Game 7 of 2003 is oft-forgotten).

I always got the sense that fans at Yankee Stadium cheered Mussina because they had to, not because they wanted to. He was ridiculed for his love of crossword puzzles and his Stanford degree.

We don't want our athletes to be smarter than us, because they're already physically gifted, so why should they get everything? If we think they're knuckle-dragging dolts, we can sleep a little better at night knowing that while they may have millions of dollars, adoring groupies and untold public glories, at least they can't fucking hold a candle to us at the Saturday Times puzzle. So morons like Manny Ramirez are celebrated while quick wits like Mussina are reviled. Our entire culture, in fact, is predicated on the idea that intelligence is not a virtue. It's why we know every detail of Michael Vick's dog-fighting operation but all we know about Steven Hawking is that he talks funny.

Mussina has deserved better from Yankees fans. He's deserved better from me. I've been known to have troubling relationships with even the most beloved of Yankees, so I might not be the star to hitch your wagon to. I wish I didn't have such a negative view of Mussina. I wish I could just appreciate his almost greatness, his Don Sutton-y performances and his barbed one-liners. But I can't. I'll never get past all the negative associations with Mussina, most of which are probably undeserved.

Even today, it's hard to blame Mussina for his recent performances and quotes. He's getting old, and he's having trouble dealing with it. I'm not too fucking happy about it either.

In some ways, Mussina is a symbol for everything that's happened to the Yankees since Luis Gonzalez's blooper floated menacingly over Derek Jeter's head. He's overpaid, he's not particularly admired, he's had brushes with greatness but never quite achieved it. He's not Andy Pettitte. He's not Paul O'Neill. He's not Bernie Williams. And he seems to have run out of time to change that.

Update: Some good times to look back upon in these dark days.