Until now, the latter day New York Yankees dynasty hadn’t a single Hall of Famer*. (¡Que horror!) Now they have two and a third on the way.
Between their first of four championships in five seasons from 1996 to 2000, the Yankees won 487 games, had something like 22 all-stars, a Rookie of the Year and a smattering of Gold Glove and Silver Slugger winners. They were hyper-successful, but no single player that you’d consider pinstripe-synonymous has made Baseball’s Hall of Fame. That’s not an oversight, but it is a little surprising, especially considering how successful that half-decade in the Bronx was (plus another bunch of years for just about any other team but the Yankees—we’ll come back to this).
Again, not an oversight: guys like Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Tino Martinez, Paul O’Neill (for a fan of a certain age)—again, guys you picture as Yankees in a way you wouldn’t for Wade Boggs or Tim Raines—had quality careers and all contributed during the most recent extended run of success for the Yankees, but it’s hard to make a case that any were baseball-Hall worthy. Monument Park, no doubt. But it would always come down to Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter to bring the turn of the century dynasty to Cooperstown. (Small note: all this with respect to Joe Torre, we’re just talking players here.)
So now, enter Mo. The greatest closer to ever play the game, regardless of what variant of the closer we’re discussing. And look, I know that sentence means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and the specialization of the role can be a trigger for some. I’m not here to litigate usage. What I know, and what 100% of Hall voters know, is that Mo was magical at the job he was asked to do. He wasn’t infallible; in a sport largely defined by one’s mishaps, no one ever was. But there’s a reason the late, great Mel Stottlemyre named his boat “Mo in the ninth.” Mo was a career-maker, an era-definer, a ring-bringer.
He had a pitch that made an improbable task virtually impossible, and he delivered a lot of jewelry on its atypical spin. Between Mo and Jeter, the first player to go into the Hall of Fame from the ’96-’00 Yankees run was really just going to come down to who retired first. Mo is a worthy representative.
Also coming in with Rivera is Mike Mussina, who many younger fans remember mostly as a Yankee, perhaps only barely as an Oriole. To be fair, the Yankees are a and perhaps the feature presentation; it’s understandable. But Mussina was a five-time all-star in Baltimore, picking up seven top-six Cy Young finishes in 10 seasons while pitching for the last postseason participant they’d have in close to 15 seasons.
With the Yankees, Mussina spent the final eight seasons of his career making 27+ starts a season and pitching in the postseason every year but his last. Could you call him exceptional? I’m not sure. He was often very good, in a way that if you check the numbers, you might even be a little surprised. Mussina doesn’t conjure memories of pure dominance, but it’s a little misleading to say he is a Hall of Famer entirely because of his consistent longevity.
Of course, that’s probably the biggest reason he’s a Hall of Famer. 18 years of metronomic production through some of baseball’s highest offensive times helped him collect numbers that deserve enshrinement. Mussina ended his career with 270 wins and 83 bWAR—he was a 2 bWAR or better pitcher 16 times.
On any other franchise, Mussina’s 15 postseason starts with New York (21 for his career) speaks for itself. But for the Yankees, it comes with the caveat that none of those playoff appearances included a championship-winning season. The Yankees made two additional World Series in Mussina’s time, lost both, then spent the final few years of his career unable to advance past the ALDS.
Mussina is a rare high performer whose entire career in the Bronx fit between championships. I think that’s part of why a lot of people can’t really envision Mussina as a Hall of Famer. How good would you have to be to be, say, Hall-worthy, without being Monument Park worthy?
In some ways, Mussina is a throwback entrant. His career has qualities that were perhaps held higher by a different generation of ballot holders. Longevity, certainly, a prerequisite to being in any discussion about greatness for mostly everyone. Consistency as well. He also had voter-friendly intangibles, things like “passion” and “tenacity.” The clip that made the rounds after his election was a famous telling-off of Joe Torre:
Nearly two decades of above average baseball helped him earn his spot, too.
Khurram Kalim is a senior writer for Bronx to Bushville.