"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Yankee Panky: Mussina the Ballplayer Died at the Right Time

In my sophomore year of college, as part of my Sport Studies minor, I took a Philosophy of Sport class. The professor made us swear an oath to not divulge the nuances of the class, but out of courtesy — he was my advisor and mentor, and remains a good friend — I asked his permission to violate that oath for this column. Anyway, one of the tenets of the class was “dying at the right time.”

Roberto Clemente literally died following a serviceable 1972 season — his final hit was the 3,000th of his career, and he hit .323. Who knows? Had he lived, he may have been compelled to retire at age 37. However, to die at the right time, in sport philosophy parlance, means to have the self-confidence, self-assurance, and self-recognition to say it’s time to retire and move to the next phase of your life.

Still, few athletes “die” appropriately, or at least, in the way we discussed in class. Mark Harris demonstrates the concept brilliantly in his Henry Wiggen series, tracing the ballplayer from a talented kid who rises to the Majors in “The Southpaw,” to the staff ace who comes to grip with his selfish behavior in “Bang The Drum Slowly,” to the 38-year-old veteran in “It Looked Like Forever” who has problems with his “prostrate” and his fastball, but rejuvenates his career as a closer only to see it ended by a line drive hitting him in the head.

The Harris books, written between 1953 and 1958, still hold up today. Although Wiggen is a fictional character, through him, Harris tapped into the athlete’s psyche like few writers have ever done. Wiggen is Roger Clemens (sans HGH), Pedro Martinez, Cal Ripken Jr., Dan Marino, Michael Jordan (the Washington Wizards era), Emmitt Smith, Jerry Rice and every other professional athlete who extended his career beyond the point of his effectiveness. Few pros have been fortunate enough to go out on top. Jim Brown may be the best example. John Elway also comes to mind. Michael Jordan’s second retirement qualifies. Annika Sorenstam won three tournaments and accumulated more than $1 million in prize money this year, but decided during the summer to retire from competitive golf to focus on her other business interests. She played her final LPGA Tour event this weekend.

In baseball, there are fewer examples of dying at the right time. Ted Williams and Sandy Koufax come to mind. Babe Ruth hung on too long. So did Joe DiMaggio. Rickey Henderson played four seasons too many. Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine all extended their careers one or two seasons too long, like Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Don Sutton and Warren Spahn before them. Shifting the spotlight locally, any Met fan with a conscience can see Pedro Martinez was likely done two years ago, and Mariano Rivera, despite his stellar 2008 season, is in danger of being considered a player who played a season or two more than he should have.

Until this season, I put Mussina in the “hanger-on” camp, too. I thought he was done after his 15-7 season in 2006. His fastball had lost some zip, he wasn’t a 200-inning lock anymore, and I didn’t think it was worth bringing him back for two years to be a right-handed Jamie Moyer. I was proven wrong. Mussina was easily the Yankees’ ace in ’08, and won 20 for the first time in his career. Rather than pitch for two or three more years to achieve 300 victories and all but assure a Hall of Fame induction, he decided to retreat to private life.

“I don’t have any regrets. This is the right time,” Mussina said on a conference call Thursday. “I don’t think there was ever a point where I looked around and said, ‘You know what, I’m going to change my mind.’ It was like the last year of high school. You know it’s going to end and you enjoy the ride.”

Many local writers attempted to put Mussina’s “timely death” into perspective over the past few days. Some danced around the issue, Mike Vaccaro, turned the retirement debate into an, “I’m 39, maybe it’s time to go,” argument. Others, like Mark Feinsand, included personal thoughts on covering Mussina in their analyses, but didn’t pull back for the panoramic view.

Several writers nailed the idea of dying at the right time, but did so only for a couple of sentences or paragraphs, not for an entire column.

Ty Kepner:

Mike Mussina had a charmed season in 2008, and he knew it. Mussina’s stuff was diminished, but he had the guile to win more games than he ever had in a season. He was healthy — remarkably lucky to be so, he thought — and observers noticed him pitching down and in more effectively, changing speeds like a master.

Most pitchers would have wanted to come back for more. But Mussina’s head guides his heart, not the other way around. He was always able to put his success in perspective, to understand and savor the final moments of a fine career. It could never get any better, and Mussina knew it.

Wallace Matthews:

Mike Mussina walks away with his 20 wins and the satisfaction of knowing that when it came time to leave, nobody had to show him the door. He was smart enough to find it all on his own.

Mike Lupica:

There are never absolutes when it comes to athletes retiring, no sure things, and there sure have been more than a few who changed their minds, maybe you have noticed. But when it came out Wednesday night that Mussina was retiring from baseball and retiring from the Yankees, you could not help thinking that he was doing it exactly right, after a big year that nobody thought he had in him, maybe not even himself.

Buster Olney, albeit with a slightly different angle:

Mussina’s logic in retiring now is that he really felt like that if he was going to continue playing, it was going to be because he would pursue 300 victories — and with 270 wins, he felt that realistically, he probably would have to pitch three seasons to get those last 30 victories. And he did not want to pitch three more seasons, not at a time when his youngest children are beginning to play youth sports and he can coach them.

Kepner hit it exactly: in order to die at the right time, the head has to guide the heart, not the other way around. I applaud Mike Mussina for having the sense to recognize that this was the best it would get, and for walking away proudly. That he admitted to making the decision in January makes his season even more remarkable, but not surprising. Free of the pressure of worrying about a next season, he lost himself in a mindset that was closer to “play” than “work.” That enabled him to put together the winningest season of his career.

Until next week …

Categories:  Will Weiss  Yankee Panky

Share: Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email %PRINT_TEXT


1 The Hawk   ~  Nov 23, 2008 7:18 pm

I think this idea is completely overrated. I appreciate tenacity, competitiveness and a never-say-die spirit in athletes far more than a sense of decorum or the good taste to retire without "embarrassing" themselves. I can't say I believe this across the board but in general I love the guys who can't let go, who's desire to compete wins out over pride or legacy-building.

2 OldYanksFan   ~  Nov 23, 2008 7:54 pm

[1] I think there is honor in both paths, but not 'hanging on' is more difficult. I imagine some players might not have a lot of identity outside of being a ball player. Retiring is a lot more then just 'not playing anymore'. Mike is very grounded in his family and life.

I remember Willie falling down in CF at Shea, when he was playing long past his time. For sure, hitting all those HRs was a triumph and I understand his playing, but it was hard to watch.

Mickey did the same thing.... for an extra 18 HRs. Man, watching him TRY and jog around the bases after a HR was painful. It was heartbreaking in some ways.

So I do admire Mike. It was smart.
"It could never get any better, and Mussina knew it.".
I'll miss ya Moose.

3 Will Weiss   ~  Nov 23, 2008 8:16 pm

[2] You're exactly right, OYF. [1] Tenacity, competitiveness and determination are different traits from self-awareness. More often than not, pride and legacy-building among the "guys who can't let go" is what drives their desire to compete. It's more of a detriment in most cases than it is a positive, not only to themselves but to their team. ... With that said, I don't think Mussina's desire to compete is any less than it was at any other point of his career. No shame in retiring when you believe you'd be coming back for the wrong reasons. Paul O'Neill did the same thing, and he was arguably the most tenacious and competitive player on the recent Yankee championship teams. He "died at the right time," too.

4 The Hawk   ~  Nov 23, 2008 8:50 pm

[3] I agree that tenacity, competitiveness and determination are different traits from self-awareness. I value them above self-awareness in professional athletes, is my point.

As I said it's not a universal rule, but for instance: Jordan. He came back when he KNEW his career stats - many of which were at or near the top all-time - would suffer as a result.

That's what I mean by people who keep playing because of their competitive drive even though their legacy will surely suffer. I mean, we are talking about people on or about to be on the decline, yes? So aside from accomplishments in longevity, most of these people are putting their career numbers and reputation at great risk by continuing to play.

I'm not advocating every player keep playing till he or she is completely worthless and putting a "heroic" stamp on it. I'm not even saying it's a good idea for someone to keep pushing it like some do. In fact, it's probably not - but that's what I like about it. These aren't normal people most of the time, and the fact that they operate on a different level not just physically but also psychologically and emotionally is what endears them to me.

In the case of Mike Mussina, I get the idea he IS pretty much a normal guy. And that's good for him and certainly good for his family. But I don't know or care who he is because of he's a good husband or father, or is a sensible or intelligent guy. I can throw a rock and hit a driven but relatively sane person. I prefer a little extra "oomph" in my sports figures.

5 randym77   ~  Nov 23, 2008 9:14 pm

I hope you'll forgive this slightly OT post, but it's for a worthy cause...

Journeyman relief pitcher Ricky Stone was diagnosed with brain cancer last August. Unfortunately, he was playing for a Taiwanese team at the time, and so has no US health insurance. He got sick just three days before is wife was supposed to start a new job with insurance.

His friends in MLB have organized a charity auction on eBay to raise money to pay for his care and to support his family. Many players and teams have donated memorabilia, including the Yanks:

Two large boxes from the New York Yankees arrived at the Chandler, Arizona, home of Alisa and Nelson Figueroa on Tuesday, September 23, 2008. They were filled with autographed Yankees jerseys, baseball caps, and baseballs, their donation to Rally for Recovery, an online auction being held to benefit 33-year-old former National League relief pitcher Ricky Stone who was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor in August.

They were signed at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, September 21st, the day the Yankees played their last game at the House That Ruth Built. The jersey Derek Jeter signed was one of the jerseys he wore that last day. Included were signed jerseys of A-Rod and Mariano and a number of signed caps including one signed by Yogi Berra who was at the Stadium that day to say goodbye.

Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz, Ichiro, David Wright, Johan Santana, Ken Griffey, Jr., Jim Thome, Ryne Sandberg, Jeff Kent, Jose Reyes, Miguel Tejada, Carlos Quentin, Mark Belhorn, John Smoltz, Brad Ausmus, Joe Nathan, Adrian Beltre, and Roy Oswalt are among over 100 baseball players donating to an online memorabilia auction to be held this week to benefit 33-year-old Ricky Stone, relief pitcher for Astros (2001-2004), Padres (2004), and Reds (2005, 2007), who was stricken with a malignant brain tumor in August 2008.

Read the rest of the press release here.

The auction is just going live now. There should be more items going up over the next few hours.

6 theplacesyoullgo   ~  Nov 24, 2008 3:56 am

The real quandary is that there is never a perfect time to exit the game. You're either too early or too late. I don't think the athlete who chooses the former is any less "competitive" than the athlete who chooses the latter. In fact, if anything, I think it may be the other way around. Other than family considerations, Mussina retired because he felt he wouldn't necessarily be able to compete on a level he deemed up to his own standards over the next 2-3 years it would take him to reach 300 wins.

Mike Mussina's brother wrote a blog entry detailing the reasons for Mussina's retirement probably better than any of us can. Essentially, Mike felt he would not be able to take the ball every fifth day over the next few years. I think a less competitive person would have signed a nice two-year deal with the Yankees and figured that if he ended up on the DL, "oh well."

7 Will Weiss   ~  Nov 24, 2008 9:16 am

[6] Great post. The only point where I disagree is that there is a perfect time to exit the game. Think of our own careers and when we've changed jobs. The argument is similar. When it's time to move on to something else and embrace new challenges and you don't believe you can work up to your standards anymore, it's time to go.

8 theplacesyoullgo   ~  Nov 24, 2008 10:18 am

[7] Just to inquire into the issue a little further (it's a fascinating one):

Do you think that the perfect time to exit the game is when the athlete himself feels he no longer meets the criteria, or when the fans feel he no longer meets the criteria? A Mike Mussina's standards for himself and a, oh, Pedro Martinez's standards for himself may vary wildly, and Pedro may not believe it's time to move on to something else at the same point in his career that Mussina did. When Ripken retired after hitting .239 in his final year, did he retire at the perfect time because he wasn't ready until then to embrace new challenges, or did he retire too late because he ended his career with embarrassing himself at the plate?

I'd like to think that the "perfect" time to walk away is when the athlete he feels he no longer meets the above criteria, but as fans, I think we're almost always left feeling someone walked away too early ("he still had so much left") or too late ("desperately hanging on"), with 95% of baseball players falling into the latter category.

9 The Hawk   ~  Nov 24, 2008 10:37 am

[6][7] The only problem is that in regards to Mussina, it doesn't really necessarily apply. He retired off a great year, so there's no outside indication he wouldn't have done well again. It appears that he decided to hang it up by taking a good look at himself mentally. I infer then that he IS in fact less competitive than some of his more psychotic peers - many of whom will willfully throw themselves into the arena again and again if they feel like there's any chance at all that they can compete. Again, being like Mussina is not a bad thing for a human being to be. The sanity of knowing your limits before they are harshly demonstrated in front of a sometimes unforgiving public is a relatively rare and wonderful thing in the upper echelons of athletic achievers, many, if not most, of whom can thank an unhealthy drive for their success (in addition to prodigious physical skill, of course).

[8]I disagree that fans usually want more. It seems to me the conventional wisdom is athletes often if not usually keep playing past their prime when they ought to stop. An unscientific memory poll by yours truly bears that out, anyway ... The reason I ever even explicitly thought to myself "What's so great about leaving at the top of your game?" is because I heard that sentiment an awful lot: "Why don't these guys quit while they're ahead?"

10 Raf   ~  Nov 24, 2008 11:26 am

I dunno, I remember watching Steve Carlton hang on, I still see Bernie eager to suit up, I remember how Jim Bouton pitched in an amateur league until fairly recent, I think Bill Lee is still pitching somewhere.

Jim Bouton said it best: "You spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around all the time."

Each athlete has their own reasons for retiring, and I suspect most are able to make the adjustment.

11 Will Weiss   ~  Nov 24, 2008 3:46 pm

[8] I think the perfect time is when the athlete believes there are priorities greater than playing the game for a living. Sometimes, the body makes that decision. Other times, it's the head. ... [9] There was no indication that he would have done well, either. That uncertainty probably had a lot to do with the decision. If he was more sure that he could win 15-20 games, make 30-35 starts, he'd probably come back ... [10] Bobby Nystrom still plays in an over-40 rec hockey league. But you wouldn't see him out there trying to keep up with Chris Drury, Scott Gomez or Ilya Kovalchuk. ... It goes back to the concept of the head guiding the heart. It's a control issue and how you identify yourself. Can you compartmentalize? Ted Williams was a different person to his teammates than he was to the media. He didn't define himself as a baseball player. Pete Rose's personality was consistent, he identified himself as a ballplayer and has never been able to let go.

feed Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email
"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver