On the way through his Hall of Fame career with the Orioles and Yankees, Mike Mussina helped shape modern Red Sox history.
Certainly, Mariano Rivera left his own mark on the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. And the Red Sox did make a run at signing the famed Yankees closer, making a two-year offer to him after the 2010 season.
The Sox likewise pursued frequent AL East nemesis Roy Halladay as a trade target from the Blue Jays during the 2009 season, only to see Toronto deal him to the Phillies that offseason.
But it was Mussina whom the Red Sox pursued most fervently in the 2000-01 offseason. That winter, shortly after then-Red Sox CEO John Harrington announced his plans to sell the franchise, Boston entered the free agent market looking to add a difference-maker in pursuit of both a championship and a boon to the value of the club.
“Internally, we had identified [Alex Rodriguez], Mussina, and Manny Ramirez as three targets for the club,” former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette recalled. “John Harrington wanted to sign a free agent to spur interest in the club. We were determined to sign one of that group.
“We were trying to sign a pitcher first. We didn’t think we were going to sign A-Rod, so we made a strong bid to sign Mussina. Our people knew him well. We’d followed him out of high school and at Stanford.
“He had a great career for the Orioles. He was really dependable, really a terrific pitcher. We saw him a lot. We knew him. We liked him. And we were willing to commit significant resources to him.”
The thought of Mussina pitching alongside Pedro Martinez, both at the height of their powers, offered a compelling vision.
“That would have solidified the top of your rotation pretty well, eh?” mused Duquette.
The Red Sox were indeed willing to stay in the bidding with the Yankees on a courtship that concluded with New York signing Mussina for six years and $88.5 million. But Mussina chose New York in part because the Yankees were willing to offer a no-trade clause and the Red Sox were not.
“We were the bridesmaid in that bidding,” said Duquette.
But the bridesmaid was determined to forge a union, and in this case, the Red Sox did just that with the next player on their board: Ramirez. Less than two weeks later, one day after the Rangers signed Rodriguez to a record-setting 10-year, $252 million pact, the Red Sox signed Ramirez away from Cleveland with an eight-year, $160 million bid.
Mussina enjoyed some memorable performances against the Red Sox — including his near-perfect game at Fenway Park in 2001, ended by a two-out single in the ninth inning by Carl Everett, and perhaps more notably, his three shutout innings of relief in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS at Yankee Stadium (his first career relief appearance) that set the stage for New York’s comeback win.
But the Red Sox’ fallback plan worked out pretty well, too. Ramirez helped anchor the lineup for 7½ years, a key contributor to two titles.
“That worked out OK,” chuckled Duquette. “Manny was young and could really hit with power. He went in line with the other great left fielders of the team.”
It’s impossible to say how history might have been altered had Mussina accepted the Red Sox cash, but at the least, his election to the Hall of Fame offered a reminder that baseball history is shaped not just by the players a team pursues but by the fallback options that present themselves.
Mussina left the Yankees with no regrets about their decision to sign him. He joins Jack Morris as the only starting pitchers to earn plaques in Cooperstown after spending the entirety of their careers in the AL during the DH era — and Mussina worked exclusively in the AL East, noteworthy given that he pitched in the division’s bandbox era.
“That’s a tough neighborhood to work in for your whole career, but he did it, and he distinguished himself,” said Duquette. “Considering how hard it is to get all those outs against the designated hitter in the deepest division, with the strongest economic clubs, it’s a really terrific career.”
And that career — along with those of Ramirez and Rodriguez — serve as reminders that high-end free agents sometimes are worth what they get. Rodriguez won three MVP awards. Mussina was a rotation constant for the Yankees, and while he never won a championship in eight years with New York, he played a huge role in helping the team advance to the World Series twice. Ramirez was World Series MVP in 2004, and then once again was a powerful lineup force in a 2007 title.
There also were some devastating deals reached that winter, with the Rockies constrained for years by the poor returns on Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle. But now, when the market appears relatively limited for 26-year-olds Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, Ramirez, Rodriguez, and Mussina offer a reminder that risk-averse investment strategies sometimes prevent teams from taking advantage of rare opportunities.
“That was a unique opportunity, especially considering the age of Manny and A-Rod,” said Duquette. “It’s very rare to have players at that age come to the free agent market.
“[Machado and Harper] are premium players at kind of the same age, a young age. They’ve established a footprint early in their careers where they could advance to Hall of Fame careers with consistency and production over this next contract.
“They’re unique talents. A lot of the other players signed to long-term free agent contracts aren’t at the unique talent level of the players we’re discussing now.”