Mussina closes strong on HOF

Mike Mussina poses where his plaque will be placed in the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s plaque gallery Thursday.Jared Bomba | The Daily Star 

COOPERSTOWN — For a starting pitcher, Mike Mussina does seem to close well.

Mussina, a former Baltimore Oriole and New York Yankee, was in Cooperstown Thursday, receiving his orientation tour at the National Baseball Hall of Fame after being elected in his sixth appearance on the ballot.

“I guess they thought I was worthy enough the first time around and I got some momentum after about year two,” Mussina said. “Year three, year four the momentum started picking up from there. I made some pretty big jumps the last few years and now here I sit.”

Mussina earned election in January, garnering 76.7 percent of the vote by appearing on 326 of 425 ballots. The qualifying number represents a sharp incline since receiving 20.3 percent of the vote in 2014, his first year of eligibility.

“I must have won a lot more games or struck out a lot more people the last five years,” Mussina joked. “I’m really thankful for the 20 percent who voted for me the first time. Because voters have opinions and if you’re thrown on that ballot the first time, there have to be people thinking you are a first-ballot Hall of Famer to keep you on the ballot.”

He enters the Hall of Fame without choosing an affiliation with either of his former teams, citing the importance of both clubs in his career. The future location of his plaque bore a photo of him in a Yankees uniform.

Much like his career, Mussina’s election to the Hall of Fame is marked by consistently above-average numbers capped by a crowning finale. Beginning in his second season with the Orioles, for whom the Montoursville, Pennsylvania product played from 1991-2000, Mussina won at least 10 games in 17 consecutive seasons, becoming the first player to do so.

After 10 seasons in Baltimore, Mussina played his last eight seasons in the Bronx. In 2008, Mussina went 20-9, winning 20 games for the first time in his career and becoming the oldest player, at 39, to win 20 games for the first time.

After his 20-win season, Mussina retired with 270 career wins and 2,813 strikeouts. He ended his career with a 3.68 earned run average

“I played in an era where there was a lot of good pitchers. And I pitched against a lot of guys that already have plaques here,” Mussina said. “I’m fortunate that I played with guys that have achieved a lot in this game and I’m just proud and honored to be considered one of them.”

Despite his resume, Mussina’s induction to the Hall of Fame was not a certainty. His consistent production was belittled by a series of near misses in both personal and team accomplishments.

Statistically, Mussina retired 30 wins short of 300 and 187 strikeouts shy of 3,000. In 1999 he was runner-up to Pedro Martinez for the American League Cy Young.

His stint from with the Yankees (2001-2008) was bookended by World Series championships in 2000 and 2009. New York appeared in two World Series during his time with the club, in 2001 and 2003, but both chances resulted in losses to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Florida Marlins, respectively.

“I did a lot of almost stuff and now I get to say I went to the Hall of Fame instead of the almost Hall of Fame,” Mussina said. “Winning 19 games a couple of years and being runner-up for the Cy Young. Being at the World Series but not winning the World Series. Do I wish they would have happened for me? Of course I wish I had the chance to be a world champion or maybe win a Cy Young. But I get to sit here, so I’m okay. Things turned out okay.”

Thursday, Mussina said he was “surprised” by his election, and his respect for those before him was evident during his walk through the plaque gallery. Stops at the plaques of legendary players like Mickey Mantle, Nolan Ryan and Frank Robinson, who passed away in February and managed the Orioles during Mussina’s first spring training, drew words of disbelief from the right-hander.

He also stopped at Cal Ripken Jr.’s plaque. Ripken is a former teammate in Baltimore and became a model of consistency for Mussina.

“When I came up he was halfway through his career, closing in on the Gehrig number,” Mussina said. “He was Baltimore baseball. It was great playing with him, he just knew everything baseball. It was a great learning process for me.”

Further along the chronologically organized gallery, Mussina noted many players that “you didn’t want to face.”

The gallery recognizes many players known better than Mussina, as does his own induction class, which includes former Yankees teammate Mariano Rivera. Rivera became the first unanimous selection to the hall of fame in January.

But Mussina’s election represents an alternative route to the plaque gallery. For a player whose career featured consistency and near misses in place of soaring pinnacles, induction represents a greater honor than all those he narrowly missed.

“I’m an example of someone that didn’t win a ton of awards, as far as individual awards,” Mussina said. “There’s a lot of players out there that are gonna play their careers similar to mine. It’s an example that you don’t have to win five Cy Young awards and strike out 4,000 people as a pitcher to be able to be thought of as one of the best to ever play.”

Hall of Fame Weekend is scheduled for July 19 to 22, with the induction at 1:30 p.m. July 21 at The Clark Sports Center in the town of Middlefield.