It wasn't so long ago that Mike Mussina was practically a ghost in the Yankee family, referred to in the past tense as he slogged along in his eighth and (seemingly) final year in pinstripes.
Mussina's ticket out of the Bronx was punched, all right: At 39, his calling card featured an 86 mph fastball and an $11 million contract, not to mention 2007's 5.15 ERA. The door was open, and Hank Steinbrenner indelicately placed his shoe on Mussina's backside when he suggested on April 20 that the aging right-hander, who was 1-3 with a 5.75 ERA at the time, "just needs to learn how to pitch like Jamie Moyer."
Steinbrenner wasn't praising the Phillies' 45-year-old lefty as much as he was insulting Mussina. The Yankees' co-owner since has apologized for the remark, and Mussina says the wound has closed. But you wouldn't blame him for enjoying a private last laugh at those who thought he'd been crushed in the war with time.
Mussina is tied for second in the American League with 10 wins, on his way to an All-Star berth. In the process, he has blown up the axiom that says a diminished fastball is a guarantee for disaster in the AL. Instead, Mussina's 3.96 ERA -- lowest among Yankee starters -- underscores how wrong everyone was in assuming his career was over and, more importantly, that the Bombers could pin their hopes on rookies Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy.
"I think it's kind of funny that me and Andy [Pettitte] are the only ones still out there," Mussina said.
Point taken: Chien-Ming Wang likely is done for the season with a torn tendon in his foot, and it's been well documented how many victories Hughes and Kennedy totaled before heading to the disabled list -- zero.
Just where would the Yankees be without their two oldest starters? Together, Mussina and Pettitte have 18 wins, and while it's still hard to believe the duo can get the Bombers to the World Series, the wild card isn't out of the question.
Mussina and Pettitte aren't just the front of the rotation; they are the rotation until Joba Chamberlain's transition from the bullpen is complete. Chamberlain took a positive step in that transition Wednesday by earning his first win in his fifth start this season.
Mussina might or might not be dropping a subtle hint to the Yankees about getting another contract in 2009, but he says hopefully Steinbrenner and general manager Brian Cashman have learned a lesson about overreliance on youth.
"To have those two kids [Hughes and Kennedy] shoved into a tough situation, with very little experience, and then be asked to win 30 games between them, that's a lot," Mussina said. "It's a lot, especially for two of them at the same time."
He's right, of course, although his wisdom wouldn't resonate if he weren't getting hitters out. Somehow, he's flourishing, even if every game -- every at-bat -- feels like a flirtation with disaster. Hitters look as if they're ready to destroy his arsenal: a fastball, knuckle-curve and changeup, all delivered at three speeds.
Slow. Slower. And Bugs Bunny time warp.
Mussina just smiles when asked what it would be like to have Chamberlain's fastball for a day, even for an inning.
"Obviously, it would be nice to throw that hard," he said.
But Mussina has discovered excellence in reverse: He wants hitters to practically leap through their skin as they load up on one of his meatballs. The more aggressive they are, the greater the likelihood that Mussina will drive them crazy.
He rarely throws his four-seam fastball on the first pitch and never challenges hitters when he's behind in the count. Instead, Mussina pitches backward, using his soft stuff when hitters are less likely to look for it, especially at 2-1 and 3-1.
The right-hander's greatest strength, though, is control and getting ahead in the count. This year, Mussina is throwing his first pitch for a strike 67 percent of the time, according to Baseball-Reference.com.
Overall, 67 percent of the pitches Mussina has delivered in 2008 have been strikes.
It's an impressive ratio, considering Mussina is overpowering absolutely no one; hitters are making contact 90 percent of the time when they swing at Mussina's offerings. Compare that to the major leagues' current strikeout leaders, C.C. Sabathia and Edinson Volquez, against whom hitters make contact only 72 and 71 percent of the time, respectively.
It goes to show what brains and self-confidence can mean. While doubters keep looking at Yankee Stadium's radar-gun readings and think Mussina's magic carpet ride has to eventually end, the righty shakes his head and says: Think again.
"I've learned a lot over the years," he said.
Mike [Mussina] is one of the more remarkable pitchers of this generation. That's a
--Yankees general manager Brian Cashman
It's not just balls and strikes that he's talking about. First and foremost is Mussina's refusal to gloat about his triumphs. Second is his politely dodging questions about the Hall of Fame, now that 300 wins seems somewhat reachable.
At 260 victories, Mussina is on Cooperstown's doorstep. Even though he says, "300 really isn't important to me," it's hard to believe Mussina will simply retire after 2008 if he finishes with, say, 16 wins and creeps to within 34 of the magic number.
Question is, would anyone want him at age 40 next year? Would the Yankees?
Cashman said, "Obviously, that's a discussion for a different day," but readily conceded, "Mike is one of the more remarkable pitchers of this generation. That's a fact."
Cashman, in fact, considers the signing of Mussina as a free agent in 2001 one of his best moves, despite the fact that the Yankees haven't won a World Series since the righty's arrived. The GM said, simply, "Outside of last year, Mike has been a model of consistency."
Mussina's career seems timeless now; it feels like he could go on forever. But he's taking the magic carpet ride day by day, inning by inning, one meatball at a time.
Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.