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Mussina’s ability to out-think hitters made him a Hall-of-Famer

scottteaser-215x160A few hours before scheduled starts, Mike Mussina could be found in the clubhouse, pen rather than baseball in hand, calming his nerves and sharpening his mind by solving New York Times crossword puzzles. That the former Rochester Red Wings pitching ace would attempt to figure out “27 across” before concentrating on “27 (batters) down” didn’t surprise anyone who knew him. “Moose” lived for cerebral challenges.

During 18 big-league seasons—split almost equally between the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees—the Stanford-educated Mussina relied as much on his brain as his right arm. Employing a repertoire of six different pitches, each delivered with surgical precision, he earned a ticket to Cooperstown by making befuddled hitters feel as if they were trying to solve a Times crossword puzzle during their at-bats.

Sunday afternoon, Mussina will become the 26th Red Wing and 28th person with Rochester ties to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. And although he wasn’t in the Flower City long, he was there long enough to win a Governors’ Cup and International League Pitcher of the Year honors.

“I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience: the coaches who helped me, and my teammates, and the places we got to go and the things we got to do,’’ he recalled recently on a conference call. “To win the Governor’s Cup (in 1990) and go out and make another run at it my second year … all those guys (played a role) in my development, and were a part of it, taught me things. I appreciated everything the (Orioles) organization did for me.”

Baltimore scouts had their eyes on Mussina long before he headed off to Palo Alto, Calif., where he helped Stanford win a College World Series and earned a degree in economics in just three years. A native of Williamsport, Pa., the birthplace of Little League Baseball, Mussina first caught their attention during his junior and senior years at Montoursville Area High School, where he compiled a 24-4 record and a 0.87 earned run average, while twice winning state player-of-the-year honors. The Orioles were so impressed, they drafted him in the 11th round, but Mussina was dead set on not only attending college, but also securing a degree. Undeterred, the Orioles tried again three years later, this time drafting him in the first round. With diploma in hand a year early, Mussina accepted their offer.

His rise through Baltimore’s farm system was meteoric. After going 3-1 with a 1.49 earn run average in seven starts with the O’s Double-A team in Hagerstown, Md., Mussina was promoted to Rochester, where he was thrust into the rotation of an International League team in the latter stages of a torrid pennant race. Mussina pitched 13 1/3 innings and, although he didn’t record any decisions, he put his team in position to win the few times he took the mound, as evidenced by his miserly 1.35 ERA. Wings Manager Greg Biagini and pitching coach Dick Bosman were so impressed with the 21-year-old’s poise that they started him in two games during the Governor’s Cup playoffs. Again, he wasn’t involved in any decisions, but helped set up victories, and the Wings took home the Cup.

You would think a guy who won 270 major league games and pitched in two World Series wouldn’t think much of a minor league championship, but you’d be wrong.

“When you play an entire season at whatever level you’re playing at and you have a chance to win the championship, that’s a big deal,’’ he said. “When (the Red Wings) season started, I was still in college. Then, you become part of a team that’s trying to accomplish something that doesn’t happen every year. So, to be involved in that was a great experience right at the beginning of my professional career.”

Mussina returned to Rochester in 1991, and, working with Bosman, built on the promise of the previous season, going 10-4 with a 2.87 ERA. By the end of July, Baltimore’s brass had seen enough and promoted him to the big leagues. He lost a 1-0 decision to the Chicago White Sox in his MLB debut—his only mistake, resulting in a Frank Thomas home run—and would go 4-5 with a respectable 2.87 ERA. The next year, he won 18 games and was on his way.

He’ll share the stage Sunday with baseball’s all-time closer Mariano Rivera. And that is fitting because for eight years, Moose and Mo collaborated on numerous Yankee victories. In fact, the opportunity to team with Rivera was a factor in Mussina’s decision to leave Baltimore for the Bronx Bombers when he became a free agent following the 2000 season.

“You knew when you went out there that if you can get this game deep enough, Mo was going to be back there to finish it up for us,’’ he said. “It was awesome having him on the same staff. I know he saved a bunch of games for me, and I know I set up a bunch of games for him, so we kind of helped each other to get here.”

Like Rivera, Mussina was a model of consistency. He recorded at least 11 wins in 17 of his 18 seasons, had 17 wins twice, 18 wins three times and 19 wins twice. His only 20-win season came in his final year, when he achieved that milestone as a 39-year-old with the Yankees. He appeared to have plenty left in the tank, and he might have been able to reach 300 wins had he played another two seasons. But Mussina believed retiring at the top of his game was the rational thing to do.

Without the magical 300 on his resume, he was forced to wait six years before receiving the requisite 75 percent of the baseball writers’ votes. No big deal. He got there. And maybe crossword puzzle aficionado Mussina one day will discover he is the answer to a seven-letter word for 2019 Baseball Hall of Fame inductee.

Best-selling author and nationally honored Rochester Business Journal sports columnist Scott Pitoniak was part of the 2013 Red Wings Hall of Fame Induction Class that featured the enshrinement of Mike Mussina.

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