Be Like Mike (Mussina)

The other teams in pro sports spray champagne straight out of the bottle. Only the Yankees, 26-time world champs, have champagne glasses embossed with the red, white, and blue team logo stockpiled, awaiting the next, inevitable, big win.

Last Monday night, ten minutes after the Yankees dispatch the regular-season-wonder Seattle Mariners, the half-filled cups of bubbly neatly aligned on a central table aren’t the only sign that this bunch has been here before. Everything feels familiar, and familial. Jorge Posada IV, the 2-year-old son of the Yankees’ catcher, wobbles happily between the adults, a toddler-size reminder of the fragility of good fortune: Jagged red scars, from a delicate second operation to correct a dangerous malformation of the boy’s skull, are visible through his curly brown hair. Across the room, Jennifer Brosius, wife of the third baseman, is excitedly passing along tips about where to find the best deals on leather pants. Joe Torre hugs his brother Frank.

Only Mike Mussina sits by himself. Which is fine by him. How is he going to celebrate tonight? Mussina’s eyebrows dart up; he seems baffled that the question even needs to be asked. His large brown eyes glance down at the can of Diet Barq’s Root Beer in his right hand. “I already am.”

Loners. Born-again devoted dads. Twelve-stepping, relapsing sluggers. Every manner of man has played a major role in the Yankees’ amazing five-year run. There’s been no shortage of highlight-reel physical feats as the team has won its four championships: The clutch Bernie Williams home runs, the near-infallibility of Mariano Rivera, the acrobatic flips – of his body and the ball – by Derek Jeter. Other factors in the success have been exhaustively chronicled, from George Steinbrenner’s checkbook to Brian Cashman’s savvy player acquisitions; even Gene Michael’s scouting reports have gotten ink.

More mysterious is how the Yankees have turned the creation of good locker-room chemistry from an art into a science. The Yankees are the highest-paid team in baseball, playing in a city unequaled in media mischief-making and scrutiny, but 25 very different human beings keep marching resolutely in one direction.

Joe Torre gets most of the credit, deservedly, for the serenity and relentlessness that’s characterized the Yankees since 1996. Torre, displaying some of his self-deprecating deftness even while offering his honest analysis, tosses the ball right back into the clubhouse. “When you’ve had success with a lot of the same people, you don’t have to do any selling. Everybody knows what the job is,” Torre says. “The one controversial guy who came onboard was Hideki Irabu. Our players – without any assistance from me – they rallied around him. He’d go out there and get his rear end kicked, and Tino Martinez would come in and find a reason to tell him everything would be all right the next time. This is in the individual. It’s nothing you teach them. It’s something they have to care about.”

Torre is right to praise the Yankees’ self-policing, but more instructive is his choice of example, and what he doesn’t say: Irabu was pushed overboard, all the way to Montreal. He didn’t win enough games to make his laziness tolerable.

Bear Bryant’s great old line is as true today at Yankee Stadium as it was in Tuscaloosa: Be good or be gone. As warm-spirited as individual Yankees are, the organization remains cold-blooded in its devotion to winning.

This season’s prime specimen in the Yankees laboratory is Mussina. The all-star right-hander, late of the Baltimore Orioles, occupies what was David Cone’s locker – until last November, when the Yankees signed the younger, healthier, free-agent Mussina to an $88.5 million contract and cut Cone loose.

Cone’s Yankee locker was the site of a continuous six-year press conference. One of Cone’s supposed values to the team, beyond his nasty splitter, was as a pressure-relief valve. Cone enjoyed feeding the media, which deflected attention from the majority of Yankees, who didn’t. No one has assumed Cone’s spokesman role, and the testy Martinez and Paul O’Neill aren’t suddenly imitating Oprah, but there’s been no appreciable difference in the Yankees’ mood or focus.

Mussina, the 32-year-old son of a lawyer and a head nurse, couldn’t be a more drastic temperamental contrast to Cone, the man he replaced in the pitching rotation. When he was a high-school senior in tiny Montoursville, Pennsylvania (pop. 4,645), Mussina fell decimal points short of winning valedictorian honors. His parents suspect he purposely flubbed a test so he wouldn’t have to speak at graduation. Mussina earned his Stanford economics degree in three years – partly because of his formidable intelligence, partly because he didn’t want to linger in California.

Today, every Yankee finds a directive sitting on his locker-room chair: “Please be advised that the New York Yankees will not grant permission for anyone to write a daily article/column for any newspaper during the World Series.” You’d think that at the major-league level, the Yankees’ enviable clarity of purpose would be the norm. Mussina knows it isn’t. In Baltimore, he played for an Orioles team that was riven by clubhouse politics and ego. Once, when Mussina dared to speak to reporters about the state of the Orioles, Cal Ripken Jr. pulled him aside and put him in his place: Mussina was merely a pitcher, not an everyday player, and the Orioles were Cal’s show.

One of the beauties of the contemporary Yankees is that while they’re united on the field, assimilation isn’t otherwise expected. Mussina doesn’t “fit in” in any conventional sense. Unlike Roger Clemens, who was desperate to make buddies when he was new to the club and virtually adopted Andy Pettitte, Mussina is cordial to everyone but has only one true pinstriped pal, the Yankees’ bullpen catcher, Mike Borzello.

Mussina is the rare athlete who is utterly emotionally secure. As a child, he spent hours in the basement, alone, hurling a ball against a cardboard strike-zone taped to a wall. It was the beginning of the mental conditioning that enables him to block out 57,000 screaming fans. “I’m still by myself when I’m on the mound,” Mussina says. “It’s still me against that guy at the plate. I know I’m good enough to beat him, so I’m going to beat him.” It was that frightening sense of concentration that Torre was betting on when he named Mussina to start game one in hostile Arizona.

Win or lose this week, Mussina can’t wait to return to Montoursville. He’ll happily plow snow from his driveway all winter and drive the van for the high-school JV basketball team. “Pitching is what I do,” Mussina says. “It’s not who I am.”

All he cares about in baseball, though, is winning. It’s why he’s willing to endure seven months in loud and hectic New York. It is the only way in which Mussina, the least knowable of Yankees, is one of the boys. And it’s the only thing that matters on this team.

Be Like Mike (Mussina)