Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 24, 2019

Moose And Mo, Together Again

The first Thursday in the first full month of spring is a lovely day in Gotham. It’s April 5, 2001, and the sun is shining as the temperature climbs to almost sixty degrees. At the southern end of Manhattan, the twin towers of the World Trade Center stand as sentinels over the financial district. In less than six months they will be reduced to massive heaps of smoldering rubble as the arc of history shifts. But on this bright and pleasant day that future scene cannot even be conceived.

A short walk east from the Trade Center complex is the Fulton Street subway station, at which in all probability a few bankers and traders playing hooky on this workday step aboard a number 4 subway train for the trip up the east side of the island, then under the Harlem River and into the Bronx, at last emerging above ground just in time to disembark at the elevated 161st Street station. The well-heeled truants, along with more than 26,000 fellow Yankees fans, flock to the old Stadium for the third game of the new season. It’s a contest in which the home nine will be looking to sweep their opening series against the visiting Kansas City Royals.

The Yankees hand the ball to their prize offseason acquisition, right-hander Mike Mussina. After a decade of sustained success at Camden Yards, the free agent parted ways with the Orioles, the team that drafted Mussina out of high school in 1987 and, after he chose to go to college, again out of Stanford University three years later. In his first game in pinstripes, the 32-year-old Mussina pays immediate dividends on New York’s six-year, $88.5 million investment. He sends leadoff batter Luis Alicea down swinging and needs just eleven pitches in all to retire the Royals in order in the top of the 1st. Then in the bottom of the inning Paul O’Neil sends a Dan Reichert pitch into the seats, giving Mussina a 1-0 lead.

New York’s offense goes silent after O’Neil’s blast, managing just three more hits, all singles, over the remaining frames. But one run is all that Mussina needs. With two outs in the top of the 2nd he allows a pair of hits that put runners on second and third, but escapes by getting A.J. Hinch to ground right back to the mound, where the pitcher who will win seven Gold Glove Awards during his career snares the ball and throws to first to end the inning. After that Mussina keeps Kansas City at bay, with not a single runner advancing past first base.

With one on and two outs in the 8th, and the dangerous Carlos Beltran due up, manager Joe Torre decides that Mussina has done his job for this day. The starter departs to a loud ovation, and Mariano Rivera, already well established as one of the elite closers in the game, jogs in from the bullpen. Rivera needs just two pitches to retire Beltran, and then sweeps aside three Royals in the 9th to seal New York’s victory. Mussina has his first win as a member of the Yankees and Rivera his first save of the new season.

The first Sunday of autumn is gray and wet in Boston. It’s September 28, 2008, but at least the temperature is seasonable despite the intermittent drizzle. For all that has changed in the country and the world since 9/11, the American cycle of self-determination goes on, and in less than six weeks’ time history will be made at the ballot box. But even with Boston’s long tradition of political activity, on this last day of the regular season more than 37,000 take time out from following the presidential campaign to fill most of the seats in Fenway Park for an afternoon contest between the Great Game’s preeminent rivals, the Yankees and the Red Sox.

It’s the first of a planned twin bill that will close the regular season, after a Saturday rainout. Joe Girardi, New York’s rookie skipper, gives Mussina the choice of which game he will start. With a record of 19-9, the now 39-year-old veteran knows this outing probably represents his last shot at achieving a twenty-win season. Given the uncertain weather conditions, Mussina opts to take the ball for game one. He’s opposed by Daisuke Matsuzaka, the Japanese phenom who signed with Boston amid much fanfare prior to the 2007 campaign. While Matsuzaka’s career in this country will soon go sideways, in 2008 he enjoyed his finest year in the majors. He takes the mound in the top of the 1st sporting a record of eighteen wins against just two losses.

Through three innings both pitchers handcuff the other team’s batters, with both offenses managing to put just a single runner on base. Finally, in the top of the 4th New York’s bats come to life. After back-to-back walks to Bobby Abreu and Alex Rodriguez, Matsuzaka grooves a pitch to Xavier Nady and the Yankees designated hitter sends it deep into the right field stands for a three-run homer. The next two batters single, but the Red Sox starter finally puts out the fire. Still, Mussina has been given a lead.

It’s one that he appears ready to give right back when Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz single to start the bottom of the 4th. But Mussina steadies himself and gets out of the inning on a flyout and a double play grounder. He then cruises through the 5th and uses another twin killing to erase a base runner in the 6th. While his starter has thrown just seventy-three pitches, Girardi decides to turn to the bullpen to preserve the Yankees’ lead.

The strategy nearly backfires when three relievers combine to allow a pair of Red Sox runs while only recording two outs in the 8th. With the lead down to a single run, Girardi calls on Rivera for a four-out save. He quickly ends the 8th, striking out Pedroia on three pitches. Then in the top of the 9th New York gets some breathing room when Rivera’s counterpart Jonathan Papelbon implodes. By the time Rivera takes the mound to close out the game, the lead is 6-2. Ortiz reaches on an error, but then it’s a pair of weak grounders sandwiched around a little popup, and Rivera’s thirty-ninth save of the season is in support of Mussina’s twentieth victory.

It was the career capstone for the player everyone called Moose. In announcing his retirement a short time later, Mussina acknowledged that with 270 career wins, committing to another season really meant committing to three, in order to reach 300 victories. In a career that included seventeen straight years with more than ten wins and only one losing record, he wanted no part of desperately hanging on in pursuit of a personal goal while time sapped his talent.

As for the closer teammates called Mo, he of course played on for another five years, setting records and establishing himself as the most dominant player ever at his position. Another 171 regular season saves were in his future, on the way to 652 in all. That doesn’t count forty-two in the postseason, where his 0.70 ERA is a statistical reminder of his mastery. As Derek Jeter pointed out this week, the list of men who have walked on the moon is very short, at just twelve. But that list is one longer than the list of players who have scored an earned run in the playoffs off Rivera.

Now the two are joined again, entering the Hall of Fame together, along with Edgar Martinez and the late Roy Halladay. Rivera, surely as much for his incomparable grace and humility as for his incredible talent, is the first player to be voted in unanimously; while Mussina crossed the seventy-five percent threshold with just a few votes to spare in his sixth year on the ballot.

The results are entirely fitting. Mo built a career on dominating opponents, while Moose’s time in the Great Game was filled with almosts. He almost won a World Series, almost pitched a perfect game, almost captured a Cy Young Award, and, as he laughingly said this week, almost didn’t make it into the Hall. But in the end he did, in the same year as the incomparable closer who saved his first win as a Yankee and his last. This year both the timing and the voting of the Baseball Writers Association’s members was absolutely perfect.

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