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About Jon
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1) using profanity or any euphemisms for profanity
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4) arguing for the sake of arguing
5) discussing politics
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Mike Mussina, 1988
2005-05-15 01:27
by Jon Weisman
Note: The Dodger Thoughts blog has moved to the Los Angeles Times.

As I heard reports that the career of New York Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina, who has 215 victories and a 3.59 ERA, might be fast approaching the end - though things have been looking better lately - I went looking for a feature I wrote about the righthander in 1988, while he was a freshman at Stanford and I was a junior.

I was fortunate enough to cover the Cardinal's College World Series championship in Omaha, Nebraska for The Stanford Daily that June - during a week which found Mussina and I both taking final exams (same time, different tests) in a small Holiday Inn or Marriott conference room. But the first time I sat down with the future Oriole and Yankee was in his dorm room two months earlier.

The following article ran in the Daily on April 14, 1988. I thought it would be fun to revisit it here, a meeting between a young ballplayer and a young (and somewhat boosterish) writer ...

It's no joke - Mussina is ready to play
by Jon Weisman
Editorial staff

Get this ...

After a high-school career in which he went 24-4 with a 0.87 ERA and was named Pennsylvania Baseball Player of the Year two years running, Stanford's Mike Mussina has posted a 7-1 record this season with five complete games and a two-hit shutout to his credit. He is also 4-0 in the Pacific 10 Conference Southern Division, thought by many to be the nation's most formidable league.

Okay, so here's the joke. Mussina claims he turned down a six-figure contract to turn pro because ... are you ready? He says he wasn't mature enough.

Somebody had better tell Mike to cut the gag. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound freshman from Mountoursville, Penn., has to be one of the most precocious hurlers ever to lay down his knapsack on the Farm.

"He's undefeated in the best conference in the country," Stanford Asst. Coach Tom Dunton said. "And I think it's tougher to adjust from high school to the Pac-10 than it is from the Pac-10 to pro ball."

There you have it: he's a regular world-beater. But if you question him about it, he will stick to his story with a deep-eyed, earnest, mature response. Pro ball may have been ready for him, but he wasn't ready for pro ball.

"There's no doubt I made the right choice - to come to school as opposed to signing a professional contract," Mussina said. "At the time, I didn't feel I was ready to jump right into pro ball. Coming out of high school, it just didn't seem like the right thing at the right time."

Well, let's give Mussina the benefit of the doubt, for Stanford has all the evidence of being "the right thing." He likes the wide-open campus and the moderate number of students, where "you're a person and not a number." But above all, Mussina likes the two-fold edcuation athletes get at Stanford - on the field, and of equal importance, in the classroom.

"Education's important," he said. "If you go straight to professional ball, and for some reason you can't continue due to injury or whatever, you're kind of stuck with nothing to do. I didn't want to be stuck in that situation."

So, while most Stanford students complain about paying $15,000 for a year of education at Stanford, Mussina paid $300,000 - the amount of the signing bonus he turned down from the Baltimore Orioles organization - to get his partial scholarship to Stanford.

Of course, in return for that large payment comes the tutelage he needs to fine-tune his pitching. For starters, Mussina feels he has to develop his other pitches besides his out-pitch, the fastball.

"I throw so many fastballs in a game," he said. "I could probably throw a hundred curves and come right back with a fastball and throw it right over the plate, or pretty close. I have to be able to throw a curve over the plate, or when I need to, a straight change over the plate - something else besides a fastball."

"He needs a better command of all his pitches, like any young pitcher," Dunton said. "He's got a great arsenal of pitches, but he has to be more consistent with [location]. He's got to throw it over the pitcher's part of the plate."

Problems with location help explain the team-leading 13 home runs Mussina has given up. He can no longer simply blow his fastball past hitters as he did in high school.

Nevertheless, the home-run totals don't concern Dunton, especially since only four of the 13 have come with men on base.

"This is a fastball hitter's league," Dunton said. "The reason they're here is they know how to hit a fastball. Jack McDowell gave up a lot of home runs. They'll cut down as he (Mussina) goes along."

In fact, Dunton paid Mussina the highest of compliments when he said that Mussina compares favorably with McDowell, the former Stanford All-American and current Chicago White Sox phenom.

So, Mussina is learning his lessons well. He has also been teaching a few lessons himself - to opposing batters. Mussina has won seven straight games since suffering a narrow, opening-day 3-2 loss to Santa Clara, and boasts a three-to-one stirkeouts-to-walks ratio.

Obviously, the fact that he's still learning about pitching hasn't slowed him down. But there is one aspect of his game that needs no instruction - the mental side (i.e., maturity).

"That's the first thing that most people notice," Dunton said. "He's got great mound presence and tremendous poise. He doesn't show his emotions on his sleeves like some young pitchers. That's not something you can teach. And the reason probably is (that) he's confident about his abilities."

"I try to stay composed on the mound," Mussina said. "I try not to let things bother me ... you just have to go on and pitch from there. My ability to just put something behind me and go on might be my best strength, as opposed to the physical part of the game."

By the time Mussina becomes eligible for the Major League draft again, when he is a junior, the mental and physical sides of his pitching should be so strong that maybe, just maybe, he'll be ready to hit the bigtime.

"There's a good chance," he said. "If I continnue with the success that I've been having right now, I'll have an opportunity to sign after my junior year. It'll come down to whatever looks right for me then.

"If I had to say right now, I'd probably say I will."

Not exactly Jim Murray, I know. But I still turned pro the next year.

As for Mussina, he completed his degree in economics at Stanford in three years, and was drafted after his junior year - again by Baltimore - in the first round. He reached the majors at age 22 and had an 18-5, 2.54 ERA All-Star season at age 23.

Comments
2005-05-15 05:47:46
1.   Langhorne
Pretty good, Jon. It's certainly the first time I've seen a pitcher called a "precocious hurler". I'd be afraid to see some of the stuff I wrote for the Cal Poly Post in the early '80's. My most memorable acticle was a preview I wrote about a national touring company that performed a play called 'Greek' at Cal Poly. In the first paragraph I mentioned that 'Greek' was based on the Oedipus legend. My editor, who was more interested in A Flock of Seagulls than Greek tragedy, thought I should have included the name of the author of 'Oedipus'. Even though 'Greek' was based more on the legend than the play I had no problem with that. But instead of calling me or someone in the English department or any professor on campus she just edited it herself. So the sentence read, "Greek is loosely based on William Shakespeare's Oedipus legend." 20 years later I still cringe when I think about it. In my first class the day it came out the professor called me up and showed me the article. Milton Bradley in 2005-like, I kept my composure and said, "Excuse me, I have to talk to my editor." He responded, "I quite understand." Our faculty advisor made the paper run a correction the next day stating that Sophocles wrote 'Oedipus' and that the mistake was the editor's and not the reporter's. I started writing for the sports department. But when they needed someone to interview Dyan Cannon they asked me. I think it was their way of trying to make ammends.
2005-05-15 10:30:59
2.   Linkmeister
Heck, Jon, my local sports pages are equally "boosterish" about the UH kids (Senior day for the baseball team was yesterday).

Langhorne, that's either hilarious or dreadful; I'm not sure which.

2005-05-15 10:40:07
3.   Bob Timmermann
Did he bend over in to a 90-degree angle when going into the stretch back then as he does now?
2005-05-15 11:36:33
4.   Hank
Thanks for re-printing this. It's nice to see that Mussina's interviews haven't changed that much in seventeen years. What I remember from Mussina's Stanford career (I was Class of '91, just like Moose) is that he was never the number one starter. A guy named Stan Spencer, who was drafted into oblivion by the Expos, I believe, always pitched on Fridays. Nice piece.
2005-05-15 12:01:39
5.   Bob Timmermann
Those Pac-10 baseball series, which are always Fri-Sun start with the #1 guys and a close game. Then the #2 guys and a little bit higher scoring.

Then you get to Sunday and the #3 guys start and you end up with a 15-14 game.

When I was at UCLA, the #1 guy for Stanford was Jeff Ballard. I remember freezing at Jackie Robinson Stadium one Friday night watching a game. JRS is set up so it gets very cold winds blowing in at night. Even scarier, the wind is blowing in off of a cemetery.

2005-05-17 08:07:35
6.   Eric Enders
Cool flashback... Jon, why did Mussina receive only a partial scholarship if he was such a stud in high school?

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