It was the final Monday of the regular season, not even twelve hours after I’d scraped dirt off the Yankee stadium mound following the last ever game there. The entire family was getting ready to fly to Montoursville for one final off day. Knowing the Yankees were eliminated from the playoffs, I said to Mike “do you want me to start making tee times or can you do that from the road”? He replied, “I don’t think I can swing a club right now.”
For a moment, I was puzzled. Up to that point, he’d been dealing. Health had not been an issue. Not only was he 18-9 with two outings left in his quest for that elusive 20 win season, but he hadn’t missed a start all year.
“Are you hurting”? I asked.
“My elbow’s bothering me,” he replied.
“For how long”? I continued.
“Six weeks,” he deadpanned.
“Is it that bad”? I said.
“It’s not like a knife,” he explained, “but it hurts.”
“Can you pitch?” was my last question.
“I can get through two more starts.”
That’s when I first really came to believe that he might actually be done. I’d heard the family rumors throughout the Summer, or the people around town saying “I heard that someone told someone that Mike said this was it.” I took it all with the proverbial grain of salt. I thought that when he got home in the off-season; let his body rest and his batteries recharge that he would come around. He never did, and honestly, he seems extremely at peace with his decision.
I think there are two real reasons that Mike did the unprecedented, and walked away after a 20 win season. The first is health. If he pitched a season as a 39-year old, a season in which everything clicked for him, and after six months his arm was in that much pain, then how was it going to be 40 or 41? And what if during those seasons, the Yankees make the playoffs as the usually do? Would he have anything left? He wouldn’t be doing the Yankees any favors by giving them the first four months of the season, or the first five, or the first six. Any Yankee pitcher needs to be ready to take the ball every fifth day for seven months. He’s not sure if he can do that anymore.
Maybe he could. Who knows? Maybe he could give one more, or even two more good years. There’s an end somewhere, and no one knows where it is. The best analogy I can give to it is like when you’re walking through a dark room. You know the wall is there somewhere, but you don’t know where. But then there are times when even though you can’t see it, you can just tell that it’s close. I think Mike thinks the wall is really close.
The other reason goes back to the age-old debate. Should an athlete quit when he’s on top, or run the engine until the tank is dry? Neither theory is right and neither theory is wrong. It’s personal preference. Most players, however, tend to hang on for what most sports fans would deem to be a year too long. Look at Maddux and Cal, two icons of the era. Maddux’s last season ended with a record of 8-13. During Cal’s last year, he posted the lowest batting average of his career, and his on-base-percentage and slugging percentage were borderline horrible. Going further, let’s look at some other players who, whether future hall of famers or not, would certainly be considered stars of this generation. Frank Thomas was released by the Blue Jays this year, just as the Padres released David Wells last year. Jason Giambi and Ken Griffey, former MVP’s, now struggle to hit .250, and Kenny Rogers was benched with a month to go in the season.
Then there are the injured guys. Glavine went 2-4 and missed four months. Smoltz missed five months. Schilling missed the entire season. As a matter of fact, when you look at all the pitchers in ’08 who were 40 and older: Maddux, Glavine, Smoltz, Schilling, Rogers, Randy Johnson, Tim Wakefield, Jamie Moyer, only Moyer had a season that one would consider to be good. Heading into ’09 being 40, the odds certainly wouldn’t be in Mike’s favor.
Now, the only debates about Mike will be whether not he makes it to the hall of fame, and if he does, will he go in as an Oriole or Yankee. (The choice would be made by baseball and not by Mike). As far as his playing days, they’re over. After 18 years and 536 starts, I can put away my pitch charts, retire my lucky shorts, and find a permanent home of the mountains of video tapes that have collected in my basement. What started in Memorial Stadium on August 4th, 1991, has officially ended.
In time I will post a blog detailing my thoughts on Mike’s possible enshrinement, but not yet. Right now, I want to thank everyone who contributed to the glorious times I had at Camden Yards, and in Baltimore in general. I met so many wonderful people, many of which I still stay in touch with. I loved my time on the air at WNST almost as much as the summer I co-hosted with the Nasty One down the dial at WLG. Many people have derived a sort of rivalry between the Mussina family and Baltimore ever since Mike went to the Yankees. Nothing could be further from the truth. We all enjoyed our years in Charm City. I met my wife there. My first child was born in Howard County Hospital. These are memories I will always cherish, as there are only two places I’ve ever called home….Baltimore, Maryland and Montoursville, Pennsylvania, and I owe it all to Mike, and to whomever made the decision to use the 20th pick of the 1990 draft on the skinny right-hander from Stanford.
I’m sorry for all of the Oriole fans on this day. Every one of them still had a rooting interest in Mike. Some rooted for him to win, some rooted for him lose, but all of you will get over this a lot quicker than I will. As odd as it sounds, today starts a new chapter in my life. I love baseball and I always will, but the sport will never be the same to me again.