Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Mike Mussina: He'd Rather Be At Home

On one of the many occasions when I went to see the Yanks at the Stadium last season, I happened to find myself sitting in front of a well-known sportscaster. We’ll call him Bob. Anyway, Bob was giving his friends the inside scoop on some of the players—who was cool, easy to talk to, a pain in the pujols. One of his friends inquired about Roger Clemens. Bob told him that Roger Clemens was all but impossible to dislike. The kind of guy with whom you really want to go out and have a beer. Being the busybody that I am, I couldn’t help but snort loudly by way of voicing my disapproval. Apparently, I got my point across because Bob responded by saying, “What? You don’t agree.” I said, “No, I absolutely don’t. Roger Clemens is a fundamentally bad person.” I said this with the confidence of someone who had met Roger Clemens, which of course I had not—Bob undoubtedly had. But I have never shied away from a debate for lack of concrete evidence. And, by the way, I am pretty sure that everything that has happened in the past few months has served to substantiate what was always obvious to me about Clemens. And if you’ve been reading about his son this week, you’ll know that the asshole doesn’t fall far from the tree.

In any event, Bob and I engaged in a bit of a debate about the personalities of the various players. He suggested Giambi would be fun to have a beer with. Again, I disagreed. (Though, the whole flipping bird thing has gotten me thinking that Giambi might actually be a little bit hilarious.) Bob threw out the names of player after player, each of which I rejected on the grounds that they were evidence of Bob’s bad taste in ballplayers. Eventually, he said, “Well, fine, then. If you could sit down for a beer with any player, who would it be?” I paused for a moment, reflected, and responded, “Mike Mussina. Hands down.” He looked at me with awe, shook his head, and said, “You have no idea what you’re talking about.” It’s true. I didn’t. And, yet, I was certain I was right.

On the surface, it might be difficult to deduce that Mike Mussina and I have all that much in common. Moose grew up in Montoursville, Pennsylvania. I grew up in Los Angeles and New York. Moose went to Stanford, and graduated in three years as an Economics major. I went to three different colleges and eventually graduated in eight years as an English major. Moose is a famous professional baseball player. I am a not-famous unpublished novelist with a blog, which has a readership that is small, to say the least, though admittedly elite. I move approximately once every six months. Moose never moves. I have two dogs and three hamsters. Moose has a wife and two kids. I love doing the crossword. Moose…well, Moose also loves doing the crossword. But, you get the point. And, yet, I feel in him a kindred spirit.

I have a mantra. And that mantra is: “I’d rather be at home.” This is particularly true where evening activities are concerned—evening activities that most people tend to think are fun. The words “cocktail party,” “barbecue,” “going out,” “wedding,” “networking opportunity,” “a lot of fun,” “great place to meet people”—these are all watchwords for me. Words that produce in me an unspeakable amount of anxiety. Anxiety I never experience when I am home watching a Yankees games, or Season 4 of House, or reading Edith Wharton.

How does this make me like Moose? You see, despite being a multimillionaire with the option to live anywhere his heart desires in any manner he wants, Moose chooses to keep his permanent residence in Montoursville, Pennsylvania. He chooses to keep his old friends, despite the fact that a player of his talent and stature could be out rubbing elbows with middle-aged pop stars and sleeping with groupies. Whenever he has a day off, he chooses to go home to spend time with his wife and his children rather than bask in the warm glow of his stardom. He chooses to help coach the football team at his old high school during his spare time—spare time that he could be spending at the club or doing nothing on a beach somewhere. I don’t want to speak for Moose, but it sort of sounds like his mantra is more or less the same as mine. When push comes to shove, in a manner of speaking, he would also rather be at home.

In 2004, The Yanks played their opener in Japan. Moose famously took refuge in his room, refusing to come out whenever unnecessary—opting to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches rather than branch out and eat sushi. Some might say that it is behavior like this that makes Moose an eccentric. No, not an eccentric as defined by Tim McCarver—the kind of eccentric who sits in Starbucks and writes poetry. I mean the kind of eccentric who is a little unconventional, a little bit different. The kind of eccentric who is rich and famous and still chooses to live in Montoursville, Pennsylvania. The kind of eccentric who travels to Japan and would rather lock himself up in his room than explore.

I happen to be a person who loves to travel, and I can still relate to Moose on this one. The same year that he traveled to Japan for the opener, I spent some time in Cambodia. I was there for several months, during which time I was invited to one of the rural villages to attend a traditional Cambodian wedding. It was a cultural immersion experience unlike any which I had previously experienced. From the beginning of the weekend to the end, I was dragged around from house to house, stared at, touched, made the center of attention in ways that I systematically avoid in my day-to-day existence. (You will remember that I am a person who would rather be at home.) The food at the event was making me completely and utterly sick to my stomach. Had I the means to make myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I would have. I was sharing one big room with all of the other guests at the wedding, but believe me, had hiding in my own room been an option, it is one I would have exercised. So, I did the next best thing—faked a headache and pretended to sleep through the entire wedding reception.

Maybe this behavior is indicative of the fact that I, too, am an eccentric. Or maybe it’s just that we have different expectations of our sports figures. It is not at all uncommon for a person to travel for business and retreat to his hotel at night as soon as his work for the day is done. Particularly if it is a trip that he would rather not have taken in the first place. And, for Moose, the trip to Japan was just that kind of trip. He went there to do a job. Period. But, nowadays, to be a professional athlete is not so much a job as it is a way of life. These guys have money, they have fame, they have all kinds of opportunities that we do not. The voyeurs in us want to see them take advantage of that. But Moose defies us all by doing the unthinkable: He treats baseball like it is work. He is deeply invested in what he does while he is doing it. However, when he is not playing or practicing, Mussina clocks out. He goes home.

According to his agent Arn Tellem, “He’s still the same small town guy from Pennsylvania. He has the same friends, is committed to his family, and is dedicated to not letting his professional career get in the way of his home life…And being able to pull that off, I have unbelievable respect and admiration for him.” And so should we. Because it’s hard enough for anyone to strike that balance. For an athlete? It’s all but impossible. And I think because we are unaccustomed to it, we just don’t know how to interpret it. We assume that our athletes should fit a certain profile because so many of them do. But Mike Mussina is ultimately just a quiet guy who lives in a small town in Pennsylvania. And, when he’s not at work, he would rather be at home. If Mike were a fireman, or a stockbroker, or an engineer, we wouldn’t think anything of it. But Moose does sports for a living, which makes it more confusing.

The most striking thing that Tellem had to say about Moose is that he is “true to himself.” Tellem went on to say, “He is probably the most grounded professional athlete that I know.” I admit, this is a little like saying that someone is the classiest player on the Red Sox. However, I am inclined to believe that, with Moose, what you see is what you get. And what you get is a guy who works hard and gets the job done without ever losing sight of the fact that, ultimately, a job is just a job. Even if that job is sports. What you get is a guy who values family above all else. What you get is a guy who loves tractors.

Moose posted yet another win last night. This is not only significant because, these days, every Yankees win is significant. It is significant because it moved Mussina past Eppa Rixey and Bob Feller up to 34th on the all-time win list with 267. More importantly, last night's win constitutes Moose’s 17th of the season. As we all know, he is working his way to 20—a number that has eluded him more times than one. You could say that, in Moose’s pursuit of 20, if it weren’t for bad luck, he wouldn’t have no luck at all. He came close in 1995, with 19. If you will recall, the 1995 season was cut short by the strike. In 1996, he pitched what would have been his 20th win for the Orioles were it not for the fact that Armando Benitez blew the save. Moose is the king of almost, just about, missed it by that much. With four or five chances remaining this season, it is coming down to the wire. Moose, in typical Mussina fashion, seems more focused on winning games for the team than beating his best. When asked about last night’s outing, he responded, “We're just trying to win ballgames any way we can. I'm just trying to contribute on my day, so today was a decent day.” It sure was, Moose. Here’s hoping for three more before the month is through.

As an aside, Bob and I ended our exchange peacefully. We put it together that we had been at the same Bat Mitzvah the previous week. There is no other such revelation that could have so successfully transformed our animosity into good will.

1 comment:

awade said...

you make me laugh.