Leitch: Mike Mussina, a Stand-Up Guy Likely Retiring Just Short of Great

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Say what you will about the Yankees this season, but they sure did end the year in a happier fashion than the Mets. (And with the same record, too: 89–73.) While the Mets faithful were committing hara-kiri during what was supposed to be a postgame celebration, the Yankees were splitting a doubleheader at Fenway Park. More to the point: They, despite some late-inning antics, got Mike Mussina his long-desired twentieth win. Nothing the Mets did Sunday, or perhaps all season, will be remembered as fondly.

It might have been Mussina’s last game in the Major Leagues, which would mean the end of one of the stranger careers in Yankee, and baseball, history. Mussina, if he doesn’t return, is probably just short of becoming a Hall of Famer — he needs 30 more wins to reach the hallowed 300 — which is why his twentieth win was, in a way, almost disappointing. Mussina has made a career out of coming up just shy of all kinds of milestones.

If the bullpen Sunday had lost that lead, it would have marked the third time Mussina ended the season with nineteen wins, and he won eighteen three times as well. But Mussina’s probably most famous for an unprecedented four near-perfect games. The most famous was the 1–0 win in September 2001 over the Red Sox, a nationally televised Sunday-night game in which he shut down 26 batters in a row before giving up a single to Trot Nixon Carl Everett. It was the third time he’d taken a perfect game into the eighth inning, and the second to reach the ninth. And, of course, he never has notched that World Series ring he’s theoretically desperate for. Mussina’s signing with the Yankees dovetails perfectly with the team’s championship drought; he signed a six-year deal with the Yanks one month after the final World Series title. Mussina’s career has signified excellence, but not greatness, through almost no fault of his own. And it has been a career that has sidestepped any controversy, save for an infamous (and instantly discredited) accusation from Peter Gammons that he was a racist. One could argue he’s the single unluckiest pseudo-superstar of the last 25 years — but he never seems to mind.

It’s perhaps fitting that the Yankees’ most disappointing season in more than a decade was when he finally won his twenty. What was most notable about Mussina’s 2008 was that it started so poorly: He lost three of his first four starts, inspiring the always-insightful Hank Steinbrenner to opine that Mussina “needs to pitch more like Jamie Moyer,” becoming the first human ever to utter those words. Then Mussina … well, he pitched more like Jamie Moyer, working savvier, conceding to his age, becoming the Yankees’ most reliable starter in a year they were ravenous for them.

Mussina is a free agent, and though the Yankees still would like him back, one gets the impression he’s ready to walk away. “I’ve been envious of every guy who’s retired since I’ve been playing,” he said after his Sunday win. “You’ve done what you wanted to do, and I still have to grind it out, that kind of thing. You get to go home and relax, and you’ve played the game as long as you’ve chosen to play it. I’ve felt good for every one of them.” Mussina will likely end his career as an upstanding, quiet, consistently far-above-average pitcher. He will also likely end his career short of 300 wins, having never notched a no-hitter, and ringless. With his luck, retiring will secure the Yankees a World Series championship next year.