COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Mike Mussina called himself a “small-town boy.” He never wanted to go to New York, or at least not originally, he said. He didn’t win 300 games, he never won a Cy Young Award and he didn’t strike out 3,000 batters, he pointed out Sunday.
He doesn’t have a glittery World Series ring to flash during Old-Timers’ Day, either.
Of course, all of this is significant because Mussina was saying these things surrounded by some of the very best to play the game, as one of the best to ever play the game. His Hall of Fame speech was in turn nostalgic and self-effacing. It spoke of a career that started as a passion for Wiffle ball in rural Pennsylvania and then spanned 18 seasons in the major leagues.
What Mussina, 50, did not mention: He was a five-time All-Star and a seven-time Gold Glove winner and had 270 wins. Only once — his final season, 2008 — did he win 20 games, but he had 18 or 19 five times and won at least 15 games 11 times.
A vintage, wry Mussina quote: “I’m standing up here with some of the best to ever play the game. Some were my teammates; some were former opponents, and some I grew up watching on television. So the obvious questions are: What am I doing up here and how in the world did this happen?”
Well, he earned 76.6 percent of the vote from qualified members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. It took six years, which, if you’re to believe Mussina, is much sooner than he expected.
The player called Moose earned “Moooooooose” chants instead of cheers, and he thanked everyone from high school coaches and college coaches, to teammates and family members, to his mom, who let him quit his piano lessons and made sure he got to baseball practice.
He told the story of being 8 years old and taking his bike to his first organized practice.
“I was so excited to go, I was so early, that no one else was there,” Mussina said. So he got back on his bike and went home.
“My mom looked at me and asked the obvious question: ‘What are you doing here? . . . Get back on your bike and get back on the field.’ Luckily, I did.”
That took him to Little League, and high school baseball, then Stanford and an NCAA championship. And then to the Orioles and the Yankees and now Cooperstown, where his plaque will live just above Mariano Rivera’s.
“For the longest time when I was in Baltimore, I said I’d never play in New York,” said Mussina, who played 10 seasons with the Orioles and wears a blank hat on his plaque. “I’m a small-town boy and that place was too much for me. Obviously, I changed my mind, mostly because Joe Torre called me.”
Also, it turned out it wasn’t too much for him. Torre, in the introductory video, recalled Mussina’s first-ever relief performance: runners at the corners, none out in the fourth, Red Sox leading 4-0 in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS. After relieving Roger Clemens, Mussina got out of it and pitched three scoreless innings before Aaron Boone homered in the 11th to send the Yankees to the World Series.
“He has no expression on his face, he comes in businesslike, takes the ball from me,” Torre said. “I put so much more weight on pitching the important games . . . To me, Moose is as good as any of them.”
It was an iconic moment, and one that’s stayed in the public baseball consciousness despite the lack of Cy Young Awards and the decision to retire before he got to 300 wins.
“Since I received the incredible and surprising news of my election to the Hall of Fame back in January, I spent a lot of time reflecting on my journey to Cooperstown,” said Mussina, ever the thinker. “I was never fortunate enough to win a Cy Young Award or be a World Series champion. I didn’t win 300 games or strike out 3,000 batters. And while my opportunities for those achievements are in the past, today I get to be part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame . . .
“Maybe I was saving up from all those almost achievements for one last push, and this time I made it.”
How about that: a starter who saved the best for last.