Mike Mussina: Before He Was A Hall Of Famer

Image credit: Mike Mussina (Tom DiPace)

A touted prospect coming out of high school in Montoursville, Pa., Mike Mussina fell to the Orioles in the 11th round in 1987 because he demanded a $350,000 bonus. He didn’t sign with Baltimore and went on to a distinguished career at Stanford.

Mussina fell once again in the 1990 draft before the Orioles snagged him with the 20th pick. He made his pro debut that summer in Double-A, where Eastern League correspondent Phil Bowman wrote about him.

You might want to put an asterisk next to Mike Mussina’s professional debut.

The record shows his first game came for the Hagerstown Suns against the Canton Indians on July 19, 1990. Actually, he pitched five days earlier, against the Williamsport Bills, but the game was rained out after two innings and Mussina’s numbers were wiped from the books.

Whatever the case, his numbers against the Indians deserved an exclamation point.

Mussina, the Orioles’ first-round pick in the June draft and the 20th player chosen overall, worked four innings and allowed only two hits, no runs and no walks, while recording four strikeouts.

A record crowd of 6,752 turned out at Thurman Munson Memorial Stadium in Canton the night Mussina pitched.

“I wasn’t nervous,” he said. “Actually I was more nervous when I pitched in Williamsport, because I’m from the area. My friends and family were in the stands. I didn’t know anybody here.”

In Canton, Mussina said he didn’t know who he was pitching against “until I showed up at the yard.” The opponent turned out to be John Farrell, who was on a rehab assignment from the Indians.

Farrell pitched six innings and allowed four hits, no runs, no walks and did not strike out a batter.

Farrell was impressed with Mussina.

“He showed great poise tonight,” Farrell said. “I like him. I saw him pitch in the College World Series. He has three good pitches. You have to be good to be a No. 1 pick.”

Mussina said he was given a signing bonus of $250,000 ($225,000 cash plus $25,000 to finish school), and that his contract contained a clause stipulating that he must start at the Double-A level.

Mussina shot through the minors so quickly that he ranked as a Top 10 Prospect for the Orioles only once. He ranked No. 2 heading into the 1991 season, behind only hard-throwing 21-year-old lefthander Arthur Rhodes.

The Orioles drafted Mussina out of high school in 1987, but couldn’t talk him out of a commitment to Stanford. Three years later, Mussina was ready to sign. Working in Double-A and Triple-A in 1990, he had a 3-0, 1.46 record.

Mussina’s next stop might be the Baltimore rotation. He complements a hard fastball with a curve and a changeup. Mussina throws a knuckle-curve, but has trouble controlling it.

Like most Stanford products, Mussina works with poise and intelligence. Some time in Triple-A certainly would be worthwhile, but what he lacks probably could be gained with on-the-job training in the major leagues.  

Mussina made his big league debut in August 1991, joining a Baltimore rotation that also included Ben McDonald, the former Louisiana State ace who had been the first overall pick in the 1989 draft. 

International League correspondent Tim Pearrell wrote about Mussina earlier in 1991, when the 22-year-old was still sharpening his mind and repertoire, including his trademark knuckle-curveball, at Triple-A Rochester.  

Rochester’s Mike Mussina received an economics degree from Stanford University in three and a half years, so it’s apparent he’s a fast learner.

That applies on the baseball field as well. Mussina taught himself a knuckle-curve his sophomore year in high school.

“I never had a curveball,” he said. “I never needed one. I just threw it by people. I was always throwing the knuckleball just goofing around. I made an adjustment from that. It’s much more consistent know than it was then.”

Mussina, last year’s first-round pick by the Orioles, hasn’t had too much difficulty adjusting to pro baseball. He was 6-3, 3,24 for the Red Wings, including a one-hitter against Scranton before being taken out after seven innings. Mussina was third in the league in strikeouts with 69.

In seven starts at Double-A Hagerstown last season, Mussina was 3-0, 1.49.

“I never noticed an adjustment period,” said Mussina, who’s learning a cut fastball and a slider. “I’m doing the same things that got people out in Double-A. I just have to make fewer mistakes.”

“There’s more possibility every person in the lineup can hurt you. It’s the same adjustment from high school to college. In college, I though all nine guys could hurt you, whereas only two or three could in high school.

“It’s the same in pro ball. All nine guys are as dangerous as two or three in college. You have to concentrate more, pitch for pitch and batter for batter.   

Mussina’s analytical take on baseball carried him to 270 wins in an 18-year career spent entirely in the rugged American League East with the Orioles and then Yankees.

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