Mike Mussina made a career out of coming just shy of historic benchmarks. He never won a Cy Young, even though he was the top five in voting six times. He didn’t win 20 games until his final season, when he was 39. He came two batters shy of a perfect game in 1997, one strike away from a perfect game in 2001, and just short of four perfect games total.
But that was the thing with Mussina: At first glance, the Yankees pitcher with the professorial demeanor, the crossword puzzle hobby and the knuckle curve could fool spectators and opponents into thinking he was merely very, very good at his job. But all the while, piece by piece, he was weaving one of the best careers of all time.
In the end, Mussina saved the biggest historic benchmark for last.
Mussina, the five-time All Star who constructed a legacy of consistent dominance, was one of two starting pitchers elected to the baseball Hall of Fame Tuesday, along with the late Roy Halladay. Halladay, who died in November 2017 after the plane he was flying crashed in the Gulf of Mexico, earned his place with 85.4 percent of the vote, as decided by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. Mussina earned 76.7 percent, or just seven votes over the 75 percent needed for induction. There were 425 votes cast.
“I’m obviously honored, surprised a little bit,” said Mussina, who was in his sixth year on the ballot and earned 20.4 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility. “It’s been a steady climb and I appreciate people sticking with me and doing the research and feeling I’m worthy of this honor.”
Mussina said he was holding practice at the gym where he coaches high school basketball when he got the call, but couldn’t say anything because the results weren’t public yet. Eventually, “I got a new record for text messages on my phone.”
“Honestly, at the beginning, the very first year, I’m just thankful that 20 percent of the writers thought I deserved to be given a vote,” Mussina said. “If you watch this thing long enough, there’s a lot of very good players who don’t make it past the first ballot...I was like, ‘Wow! I get to be on the ballot again.' ”
As the years passed, though, appreciation for Mussina’s accomplishments grew. He pitched 10 seasons with the Orioles and eight with the Yankees, compiling a career 270-153 record with a 3.68 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. The seven-time Gold Glover went 20-9 in his final major-league season, won 19 games with the Orioles in 1995, and finished as high as second in Cy Young voting in 1999. His strikeout to walk ratio is 3.58, ninth all time, and his .683 win percentage is 16th.
Memorably, Mussina came out of the bullpen in the 2003 ALCS to pitch three scoreless innings — the first time he had ever come out in relief, and a performance opened the door for Aaron Boone’s winning home run. He was 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA in the World Series, though he never won one, and 7-8 with a 3.42 ERA in the playoffs. He said he doesn’t know which hat he’ll wear in Cooperstown, and that both teams were pivotal to his success.
“Mike was a quintessential craftsman who played up to his strengths and hunted for the weaknesses in his opposition — before that level of preparation was a commonplace thing to do,” Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said in a statement. “More importantly though, he was a gamer, plain and simple. He wanted the ball, and did everything within his power to get himself ready to contribute.”
Halladay, meanwhile, won a Cy Young each with the Blue Jays and the Phillies and was an eight-time All-Star who went 203-105 with a 3.38 career ERA. He was a 22-game winner in 2003, going 22-7, and went 21-10 in 2010. In Game 1 of the 2010 NLDS, he threw only the second no-hitter in playoff history, against the Reds. Earlier that year, he also tossed a perfect game against the Marlins.
“While its happening, you don’t really sit back and think about what you’ve accomplished,” Mussina said. “When it’s over, you step away from it and really figure it out.”
Mike Mussina's Cooperstown plaque will have these numbers:
11 Seasons with 15+ wins
7 Gold Glove Awards
5 All-Star teams