'He was like a poker player who could always read me and my hand': A-Rod on Mike Mussina

ByAlex Rodriguez as told to Buster Olney ESPN logo
Friday, July 19, 2019

Editor's note: Alex Rodriguez was teammates with three of the four players voted into the 2019 Baseball Hall of Fame class. In the days leading up to their enshrinement in Cooperstown, New York, A-Rod shares the stories of Mariano Rivera, Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina -- as teammates, competitors and friends -- in his own words.

A-Rod on: Mariano Rivera | Edgar Martinez

Mike Mussina didn't call me Alex. Maybe that was too formal for him. He didn't call me A-Rod. Maybe because he wasn't comfortable using the nickname that was often used by broadcasters and writers.

He called me Al and he was the only one who did that all the time (Derek Jeter sometimes called me Al, and Phil Hughes did, too -- though Phil called me a lot of things), as Mike and I developed a great odd-couple friendship. I was a 305 kid, from Miami, and he grew up in Montoursville, Pennsylvania, a few miles east of Williamsport. My father had left our family when I was young, and at the time I knew Mike, his parents had lived in the same house Mike's entire life. I had passed up college to sign with the Mariners right out of high school, and Mike became an All-American at Stanford, earning his degree in economics.

We shared the same clubhouse, but Mike's space was and always will be distinctly his own. I might be in a back room at Yankee Stadium and, like a lot of my teammates, avoiding too much time in front of reporters. Mike, on the other hand, would sit at his locker doing a crossword puzzle, very different in his interests and perspective.

But he extended himself to me, in a very Moose kind of way, after we became teammates.

Before that, he drove me crazy because of how he thought and executed his pitches. I had limited success against him, a .250 average in 64 at-bats, with five homers and 17 strikeouts, often failing to pick up the ball in his delivery. He threw right over the top, with his self-taught mechanics, and then would jump at you as he released a pitch, and his combination of pitches was lethal. A fastball in the low-to-mid 90s. A knuckle-curve he learned as a kid, in the 78-to-81 mph range. A changeup that seemed to have a parachute attached. He constantly scrambled his pitch sequences, and as I tried to guess along with him, it felt like I was always wrong. He was like a poker player who could always read me and my hand, and I had no idea what he was thinking.

After I was traded to the Yankees, I had trouble in New York early one season, and struggled to find a solution -- and it was Moose who pointed me in the right direction. Like Mariano Rivera, Mussina would chase down fly balls in BP as part of his cardio work, and typically, he'd be in right-center or center field for that. But one day, as I went through my own regimen of ground balls at third base, I noticed Moose move from the outfield to the screen they have set up near second base, and then, suddenly, he was standing behind me, his arms folded across his chest, silent. Initially, I thought he might be positioning himself for a conversation with somebody he knew on the other team.

But he remained there. Silent.

I turned and gave him a nod of greeting. "Hey, Moose."

He said hi, and remained in place. Silent.

"Did you want to talk to me?" I asked.

"Yeah, yeah, when you're done," he replied.

With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, and knowing Mike, I understand why the conversation went this way. Moose is a private person, from a town of 4,000 people, who lives in a place in the woods at the end of a long driveway that he plows himself in the winter. He wants his space and will always respectfully give space to others, and he was not going to simply lecture me about what was running through his mind. Rather, he waited for me to open the door to the conversation, and I had done that by asking if he needed something. I knew that if Moose made the effort to come to talk with me, he believed in what he was going to say.

After my last ground ball, I stepped back next to him. "What's up?" I asked.

"How do you feel?"

"I feel like s---," I replied. "How does it look?"

With that, I gave him the chance to tell me what he saw, and his observations were detailed and user-friendly. "You're just over-swinging," he said.

He went on to explain that when he pitched to me in the past, he was always wary of power. Back when I was with the Mariners, he said, I could take a nice, steady swing and flip the ball into the right-field stands, and from the perspective of the pitcher, that's what was most dangerous.

"All you really have to do is get the ball on the barrel," he said, "and my job was to keep it off the barrel."

There's no need for you to take big swings, Moose explained in so many words -- just keep your swing under control, focus on making contact, and you will do damage. It was as helpful as any advice I got in my career, and because it came from someone I hadn't hit, it meant more than anything I'd hear from a hitting coach.

I used his thought when I took batting practice that night and felt different right away, and after that, he would give me a look and a gesture to remind me that, sometimes, 60 percent effort in a swing is better than 100 percent. What was so great about the advice is that it was evergreen, and I could go back to it.

We'd go to lunch or dinner, and I really enjoyed those -- he is so damn smart, with an acerbic wit, and it was always a fascinating conversation. About investing, about his time at Stanford, his collection of cars, or some dynamic going on with the team. He was thoughtful in those discussions, and had strong, strong opinions, but was always open for a great debate.

Moose was such a routine guy. I loved that he did those crossword puzzles every day. He was consistent in what he wore every day: jeans, a polo shirt, glasses and a hat. Once he put his uniform on, it was always the same way: black low-top Nikes, cut-off shirt.

He knew what worked for him, and understood the way he needed to get hitters out. Moose would say, "I shouldn't even bother to go to the pitchers' meeting today because I'm going to pitch to my strength." What difference does it make, Moose believed, what Kevin Brown was going to do, because his repertoire was very dissimilar, with a power sinker -- and Mussina's fastball didn't move the same way, so any scouting information that could work for Brown might not work for Moose. And he's not someone who's going to waste his time or his energy for stupidity, and he measures his words very carefully.

When I started with the Yankees, I was under the impression that he was somewhat distant with other players, but by the time he made his last start, in 2008, I can tell you that he was revered in our clubhouse. I'll never forget that last game he pitched, in Boston, to pick up his 20th win in a season for the first time in his career, and how happy everyone was for him.

Of course, he went out on his own terms: He had 280 wins and there may have been some players who would hang on to hit a big round number like 300. But Moose knows who he is and what he wants, and he wanted to return to Montoursville after that season, to coach and watch his kids grow up, the way his parents watched him. I guarantee that after he makes his induction speech this weekend, he'll climb into his car and head home, a place he loves and where he feels he belongs.

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