Mussina kept retirement plan a secret

Every morning, Mike Mussina knew.

Every inning of every start, he knew.

When he took the ball on that final Sunday of his 18th big-league summer and pitched for his first 20-win season, he knew.

He wasn’t coming back.

“I lied to all of you,” Mussina said Thursday afternoon. “I knew that that was going to be my last year since the first day of spring training.”

He revealed his secret with neither regret nor pleasure, just another matter-of-fact changeup, the way it had to be, everybody out on their front foot, Mussina impassive.

He chose to retire when he had 250 wins, then retired at 270, the last 20 a pleasant romp through sweaty side sessions and futile clubhouse mentoring and a barren New York Yankees October.

Freed of much beyond the day’s work, Mussina bore down on his 40th birthday, made 34 starts and pitched 200 innings. As the summer passed, and as teammates ridiculed this retirement foolishness, and as his fastball remained reliable, he never considered staying, not for a moment.

There were the wife and children back in Montoursville, Pa. They were expecting him. There was the decision he’d made in January, arrived at while looking back over some recent so-so seasons, and the mounting injuries, and his expiring contract. It all seemed to point to the same thing – play one more year, have a little more fun and get out.

All very methodically done, like the way he’d once picked his way through American League lineups.

He lost three of his first four decisions in April. Sure enough, everyone would have agreed, retirement seemed like a very good idea. It was written more than once that Mussina, the once great Mussina, had reached the beginning of the end.

“It really was the beginning of the end,” he said. “People just didn’t know it.”

He lost himself in the many moments that swirl and settle and make a season. He knew he’d never be the pitcher who roamed from ballpark to ballpark, picking up stray wins and paychecks. He knew a terrific season would no sooner talk him out of retirement than a poor one would confirm it. It just was.

Mussina simply did his work, took the ball when they gave it to him, tried to win, and tried to show the young men who came through how. They might not have his self-taught knuckle-curve, but they could copy his preparation. They might not have his experiences, but they could steal the results of them.

That was his season. And he had a wonderful time of it, much better, perhaps, than if there was anything beyond the rest of his life waiting at the other end of it. There would be no free agency. There would be no new negotiations with the Yankees, who would have wanted him back. There would be no new cities, if those went bad.

“It was like the last year of high school,” he said. “You know it’s going to end and you just enjoy the ride.”

Then, as luck and guile would have it, he began to win as well. By the middle of June he was 10-4. By early September he was 17-7. A few weeks later, he needed to win his final three starts for 20. He’d won 18 five times. He’d won 19 twice. But never 20. When the ballwriters and various pundits considered Mussina and the Hall of Fame, they wondered why he’d never won 20.

Then he did.

On his way there, Mussina recalled after a day of cleaning out closets and shoveling snow, he had thoughts such as, “This is so good,” and “I wonder how long I can keep it going.”

And, he added, “Before I knew it, we were rolling into September.”

He was not just a good pitcher, but a very good pitcher again. At The Stadium, they crooned, “Mooooose!” By the end, he would finish sixth in the AL Cy Young Award balloting. He would be second in wins (tied, with Roy Halladay). He would be sixth in ERA.

But, you get the feeling, the season wasn’t so much about the 20 wins, but the afternoon of the 20th win. And all the afternoons and evenings when, put together, got him there.

“It was just fun,” he said. “I was in a different frame of mind than I’d ever approached the game from before. … The days that weren’t so good, even early in the season, I wasn’t all caught up in it.”

He just knew.

Born in Williamsport, Pa., a Stanford man and an AL East blue blood, Mussina is almost certain to go to the Hall of Fame. If his career, taken as a whole, is seen as borderline worthy, voters might only consider his exit.

“I never got a chance to win a world championship. I never got a chance to win a Cy Young Award. On the last day of my career I finally won 20 games,” he said, granting the deficiencies. “There’s some nice things I’ve been able to do. I think I’ve done as much as I’m capable of doing at the level I wanted to do it at. If it creates a good argument, all the better.”

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Nov 20, 2008