A Moose tale: Putting a childhood hero into words
On July 7, 2005, I walked into Yankee Stadium for the first time, a moonstruck kid eager to finally see his beloved Yankees live. Eyes yearning for stars, I flew off the subway to watch Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Jason Giambi.
All three hit home runs and the game somehow exceeded my lofty expectations. But as the skies shifted and the clouds shone in the night, my heart was tugged in another direction. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the man on the mound, Mike Mussina.
Over the next three and a half years, my wide-eyed fondness for the Yankees turned into full-fledged fandom. Rodriguez earned two MVPs as his name became affixed to my back. Jeter was the captain, doing captain things. Many others—Bobby Abreu, Hideki Matsui, Andy Pettitte—etched their places in my first era of Bronx baseball. But with Mussina, I had a special relationship.
He didn’t have a silky stroke like Robinson Cano, a smooth windup like Chien-Ming Wang or an imitable swagger like Joba Chamberlain. What he did have was a fiery ethos, natural baseball instincts and oh, that gorgeous knuckle-curve.
I modeled my (limited) baseball career after Mussina, but the lessons I learned extend well beyond the mound. He showed me how to compete. Giving up the ball was never an option if I wanted to be like Mike. He took pride in his work. You don’t win seven Gold Gloves as a pitcher without going above and beyond the job description. He was the epitome of intellectual thinking. Moose’s pitch sequences were Monets.
Most of all, he taught me how to approach life. It’s funny—the guy won 270 games and the three I’ll remember most came in August 2007. Already an up-and-down year to that point, the Moose came loose that month. He allowed seven runs, then another seven, then six. The Yankees lost that final game 16-0.
The next time Mussina pitched, it was out of the bullpen for the first time in his regular season career. A borderline Hall of Famer had been humbled in his nightfall.
Mussina took the demotion in stride. He returned to the rotation nine days later and started a new three-game streak, this one featuring three wins and a 1.37 ERA.
“I just reminded them that I’m still here and I can still pitch,” Mussina said after the first game back. “When I look back on this year, those three games are probably going to ruin my year. I’ve got to live with that and move on from it.”
Moose moved on the way greats do. In 2008, he put together his best season since his first in pinstripes, winning 20 games for the first time. Even that required a rebound—he started that year 1-3 with a 5.75 ERA, his own mortality very much apparent.
Then, on Nov. 20, he did something that, surprisingly, added to my admiration of him. He retired.
As much as I would have liked to see Mussina open the new Stadium, to win a World Series with the 2009 team, his stepping away instilled one lasting modicum of wisdom: Live on your own terms. Twenty-game winners don’t walk away, but he did. Mussina wanted to spend time with his family, so he did.
Soon after, I started a blog because I just had to put Moose into words. It was the first time I had ever written about sports. Without Mussina, I may never have done so. I certainly wouldn’t be writing this article. But I am, because I just have to put Moose into words.
That was over a decade ago. That night, I wrote about how Mussina was the “almost man”: almost a perfect game, almost a Cy Young, almost a ring. I hoped that he would be a Hall of Famer but admitted that it was unlikely, naïve 11-year-old that I was.
Tuesday, I watched Moose get elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, crying of joy at my flawed forecast. It’s difficult to condense the impact he’s had on my life into words. But hopefully these three are enough: Thank you, 35.