COOPERSTOWN, NY — Mike Mussina was a professor on the mound. Analytical, nearly to the point of overthinking, if you’re going to believe Lee Smith, who played with him for a year.
Mussina was the pitcher known for crossword puzzles and dry humor, and being very, very good at his job. His Wikipedia page says he just missed being his high school’s valedictorian, though it also says some believe he did it on purpose so he wouldn’t have to give a speech. Ironically, given the event at hand this weekend, Mussina’s entire career has now led up to a single big speech.
So of course, when it came time for Mussina to mull over his Hall of Fame chances last year . . . well, he may have mulled a little too much.
Mussina had crunched the numbers. He wasn’t getting in this year. Probably.
“I was surprised that I hung on to make it this time around,” he said Saturday, a day before being inducted with one-time teammates Mariano Rivera, Harold Baines and Lee Smith (Edgar Martinez and the late Roy Halladay also will be inducted). “I did a nice job stepping up every year, percentages kept going up. So, I was feeling good about it. But I was just a little surprised that it happened this year.”
Wait, there’s more.
“Six years isn’t too bad. I did OK in six years. I was as surprised as anyone. I knew that I was doing well when the public stuff [votes made public] was out there, but when the private stuff gets counted up, a lot of time, it’s not the same.”
Quote Smith, who’s also getting inducted: “Great guy. I used to get on him all the time about overanalyzing a little too much. But he got the job done.”
True to that scouting report, Mussina overanalyzed a little too much. And he very much got the job done, getting 76.7 percent of the vote. And so, Sunday, the five-time All-Star will get up in front of a very large crowd and give his speech. About a year or so earlier than he thought he would.
“I’m trying to soak it all in the best I can,” Mussina said. “We’ll just keep plugging away at it and we’ll get through it.”
All that belies the fact that Mussina’s career was one of consistency and quiet domination. He had 270 career wins — an accomplishment that might be going the way of the Seattle Pilots, with the way pitchers are being used these days. He has seven Gold Gloves, finished fourth or better in Cy Young voting three times in his career, and made the top six nine times. In his final season, at age 39, he became a first-time 20-game winner, and started an American League-high 34 games.
His plaque will be right above Mariano Rivera’s in the Hall of Fame plaque gallery. Him first, then Rivera, just like in real life.
“To be back there for eight years knowing that I have his caliber of closer back there, for that many straight years, at that level of talent, he’s probably the best to ever play that position, do that job,” Mussina said of Rivera. “It’s comforting.”
Rivera did try to upset the cart this one last time, though, Mussina said. The starter is — fittingly — set to speak first on Sunday. Rivera will speak last.
“He wanted to trade. I said no,” Mussina said. “He didn’t want to sit it out there and go sixth. I told him to do what he did in the regular season, and wait until the seventh inning stretch somewhere, and then come out on stage. It will be the same.”