By 1996, I was watching games on a semi-regular basis, particularly when Mike pitched. I was pretty clueless about the game in 1995, but little by little, as I started watching more games in 1996, I started learning more and more. I managed to get up to Baltimore for one game that season. Unfortunately, I missed seeing Mike pitch by one game (just my luck, he pitched the night before), but I had fun anyway. I often watched games with friends who were already baseball fans, so I asked questions whenever I didn’t understand something about the game. As I was learning about the game of baseball, I was also learning about Mussina himself…the man called “Moose.” The most important thing I learned about Mike that season was that his hometown was Montoursville, Pennsylvania. That summer, his hometown suffered a terrible tragedy when 21 of his neighbors — students and chaperones from the local high school French class — died in the crash of flight 800 off the coast of Long Island, NY. Several weeks after the crash, Mike wrote the names of those 21 victims inside his cap to honor and remember them. The Orioles got to the postseason in ’96, and the commentators during the ALDS and ALCS mentioned Mike’s personal tribute. When he was on the mound, the camera zoomed in on his cap a few times; a few names were visible.
Mike didn’t pitch particularly well in his ALDS and ALCS starts. When he was removed from game 3 in the ALCS, the camera followed him as he walked down a corridor leading from the dugout towards the clubhouse. He picked up a chair and threw it. When the Yankees defeated the Orioles in game 4, earning a trip to the World Series, Mike sat with his teammates in the dugout and watched the Yankees celebrate the win. The camera zoomed in for a close-up shot of his face, and a tear rolled down his cheek. A friend of mine took a picture of it from her TV and shared it with me. If you look closely, you can get a glimpse of the names written under his cap.
I went to about a dozen games in 1997, becoming a fan of Brady Anderson and Roberto Alomar as well as Mike. Unfortunately, my timing wasn’t the greatest where seeing Mike pitch in person was concerned. He would pitch the day before or the day after games that I attended, so I only got to see him pitch one game that season. It was a good one though…his nearly perfect game vs. the Indians on May 30th, in which Sandy Alomar, Jr. broke up a perfect game by hitting a single to left field with one out in the 9th inning. It was a hell of a game to see Mike pitch in person for the first time! It was also part of my baseball education; prior to that game, I didn’t know what a no-hitter or a perfect game was.
During the 1997 season, a friend told me that Mike had a fan club and hosted a “fan appreciation” luncheon each January. She talked me into joining Mike’s fan club so I could attend the January 1998 luncheon. I was thrilled to have a chance to meet him there, get his autograph, and have my picture taken with him. I discovered that he was warm, charming, and very funny. That was the first of many Mike Mussina fan club events I would attend over the next 11 years.
I averaged about 25 games per season at Oriole Park from 1998 through 2000, gradually learning more and more about baseball, and wondering how I ever could have thought that the sport was boring. Although I was rooting for the Orioles at the time, I did so because that was where my favorite players were. I never really connected with the Orioles as “my” team…I didn’t live near Baltimore, so I never thought of the Orioles as my home team even though they were the closest thing DC area baseball fans had to a home team at that time. During the 2000 season, the final year of Mike’s contract with Baltimore, there was a great deal of speculation about whether or not Mike would re-sign with the Orioles. By the end of the season, it became apparent that he would probably go elsewhere, thanks to Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos’ stupidity. I was torn — on the one hand, I wanted him to stay in Baltimore so I could continue seeing him pitch on a regular basis (on TV and in person)…on the other hand, I wanted him to go to a team with a front office that would actually appreciate him and treat him with the respect he deserved. And in the end, that’s exactly what he did when he signed with the Yankees on November 30, 2000. Because I considered myself a Mike Mussina fan rather than a Baltimore Orioles fan, I “followed” Mike to the Yankees, and I rooted just as hard for his new team as I did for his old team.
To be continued……..