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8 Upper

Going Home Again

By Tom Scocca | Posted 5/9/2001

ORIOLE PARK, MAY 6--It's hard to say which is the more depressing sight in the grandstands this afternoon: the souvenir Orioles MUSSINA jerseys or the souvenir Yankees MUSSINA jerseys. The O's fans are here to mourn; the Yanks fans are here to gloat. The past and future hang in gloomy balance.

And the present is no treat either. There is not going to be any catharsis or closure or other pop-psychological payoff in Mike Mussina's return to Baltimore. The Yankees took care of that by winning the first three games of this series, sinking the Orioles to a season-high five games under .500. What's left for the O's, as their former ace takes the mound against them for the first time, is either a bitter Pyrrhic victory or a gratuitous beat-down.

New York seems ready to supply the beat-down. So far this weekend, the Bronxers have been competent, implacable, and fully in control. As ever, they have exploited their hosts' mistakes, clamped down in the late innings, and basked in the grunting and bellowing of thousands of their own fans. In the pre-game ceremonies for the Orioles' Heavy Hitters, today's top group-sales customers, one of the honorees takes the field in a blue ny shirt.

Mussina himself wears gray--that dark, unadorned Yankees road gray. His own jersey does not say mussina. Yankees do not wear nametags. The first Oriole he faces, the first Oriole he's faced in an official game in his entire career, is Brady Anderson. With two strikes, Mussina throws something floaty, freezing Anderson for a called strike three. The ball seems to sneer as it crosses the plate.

How bad will this be? Mike Bordick hits a foul pop-up, but catcher Jorge Posada misses it. Reprieved, Bordick hits a weak fly to right--a fair ball, a milestone. Then Delino DeShields walks. Maybe the O's won't be humiliated. Jeff Conine grounds out on the first pitch he sees.

Between innings, the scoreboard announces that this is Cal Ripken Jr.'s 2,897th game as an Oriole, surpassing Brooks Robinson's club record of 2,896. A montage of Ripken highlights plays on the JumboTron. It's a tribute to the days when guys like Brooks and Cal put the club first, rather than chasing money and trying to sign with a winner . . . like some pitchers we could name.

But it's also a reminder of what you get in exchange for your loyalty. Here's Ripken now, old and fading, 18 years removed from his last championship, on a fourth-place team for the fourth straight year. His .183 average sits naked and exposed in the lineup, bracketed by Jay Gibbons' .239 and Brook Fordyce's .181. This is what you get when you pledge your prime years to the Oriole Way.

So Mussina--after a hard-luck 11-15 season last year--has jumped to the sunny side of the fence. And instead of pitching Mike Mussina at the Yankees, the O's are pitching Jason Johnson at Mussina. This is, baseball being baseball, not quite as much of an object lesson as it could be: Johnson is in top form today, and Mussina is not, so they're roughly even.

Both pitchers cruise through two hitless innings. In the bottom of the third, Mussina gives up a two-out double by Anderson. Then Bordick singles, knocking in the game's first run. Mussina hunches up in the stretch, facing DeShields. In those somber grays, he looks even more fretful than normal. Then--how, exactly, is a mystery--he swivels to first and picks Bordick off. The throw is in the first baseman's glove by the time Bordick, stunned, even starts to move his feet; he lurches into an inning-ending rundown.

The duel stretches into the seventh. In the top of the inning, the Yankees string together two singles and a sacrifice fly to tie the game, 1-1. In the bottom, as Mussina reaches and passes the 100-pitch mark, Gibbons and Ripken get back-to-back one-out singles. Mussina confers with Posada. Then he pitches high and tight to Fordyce--"the pitch I wanted to make," he will say afterward--and Fordyce splits his bat trying to fight it off. The ball flares over the mound and reaches Derek Jeter on one hop, for a 6-3 double play.

The rest of the game goes to the bullpen. In the top of the eighth, Scott Brosius clubs one to left off Mike Trombley--obviously fair, obviously gone. 2-1 Yankees. Mussina, already down in the clubhouse wearing an ice pack, is New York's pitcher of record. Mike Stanton picks up for him in the eighth, and then Mariano Rivera comes out for the ninth. The scoreboard says it's never over! at the yard, which is either witless and false or all too true, depending on what tone of voice you use. Rivera retires the side, finishing the sweep. It's over. It's never over.

After the game, to accommodate the crush of interviewers, Mussina is brought to the auxiliary clubhouse. Rather than installing a podium, they put him in front of an empty locker, so the TV cameras can get authentic-looking locker-room footage. Any locker will do.

Mussina had reappeared briefly on the field after Stanton came on, drawing a brief cheer. What, someone asks, was the significance of coming back out? "Actually, it was my 150th win," he says, "and I was trying to get a ball."

And what of the fans here? Will they ever understand why he left? "You'd have to ask them," Mussina says.

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