Former Yankees pitchers Mike Mussina (left) and Mariano Rivera (right) laugh during a Hall of Fame news conference on Jan. 23, 2019, in New York.

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Murti: Rivera, Mussina Both Ascended From Small Towns To Star On Biggest Stage

Ex-Yankees Teammates Now Headed To Hall Of Fame

Sweeny Murti
January 24, 2019 - 3:05 pm
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One came to New York via Panama and the other from Pennsylvania. Their paths could not have been more different, but they met at the exact same endpoint -- Cooperstown.

Mariano Rivera from a fishing village of Puerto Caimito, Mike Mussina from Montoursville, Pennsylvania. Neither one ever dreamed of hearing “Hall of Fame” after their name.  Their goal was just to survive. 

Rivera was signed as a 20-year-old for a bonus of just $2,000. At 21, he was pitching in Greensboro, North Carolina. It might as well have been Neptune. 

Rivera cried himself to sleep at night, not because he couldn’t pitch but because he couldn’t communicate with anyone -- he couldn’t speak English. It’s not an uncommon tale told by these kids who are supposed to somehow put all their daily fears aside and play like they belong in the big leagues.

MORE: On WFAN: Girardi Reflects On Careers Of Rivera, Mussina

Rivera had no idea what roads were ahead of him. When he left Panama, he had only one thing in mind.

“I was just hoping to hang in there,” Rivera said Wednesday. “I was just hoping to do the job right so they gave me the opportunity to play in the big leagues.”

Just the chance to play -- that’s all he wanted. He was called up to the majors at 25, and by the time he was 30, we were calling him the greatest closer ever.

Mussina enjoyed a more traditional route. He was drafted by Baltimore in the first round out of Stanford and pocketed a bonus literally more than 100 times what the Yankees paid Rivera that same year, 1990.

MORE: Mariano Rivera: Mel Stottlemyre Was The Person That 'Made It Happen'

Even with that kind of pedigree came the same uncertainty Rivera faced, what every professional ballplayer faced as they tried to just make it to the majors, even if it was for a day. Mussina told me a while back that he grew up in “Smalltown, USA” and that Major League Baseball might as well have been nothing more than a TV show to a kid like him.

Mussina arrived in the big leagues at 22 and never left. He was an All-Star at 23, reached 100 wins at 28 and made the free agent jump to New York at 32.

“Coming here (for the 2001 season) gave me an instant opportunity to pitch on the biggest stage of the major leagues at the time,” Mussina said Wednesday. “They were coming off three world championships in a row at the time, and four out of five. Everything was about the Yankees.”

And when Joe Torre called to make his recruiting pitch just days after the Yankees won that third straight World Series, it made all the difference for Mussina.

MORE: Murti: Mariano Rivera Was Perfection, But Mike Mussina Also Deserving Of Hall Of Fame

“They (had not) even taken a break yet, and they want to talk to me?” Mussina recalled. “I thought that was a big deal, and it meant a lot.”

Rivera was by then on his way to being a Yankee for life, while Mussina was on his way to gaining a Yankee identity to go with his Orioles one. Both are so equally special to Mussina he says at this time there is no way he can choose which team’s cap he should represent on his Hall of Fame plaque. But the final eight years of Mussina’s career earned him 123 wins -- 49 of those saved by Rivera -- and helped lead him to Cooperstown.

That tiny village upstate is figuratively as far from where both Rivera and Mussina grew up, even if it’s literally driving distance for one of them. 

Both these men share a fondness for New York, the city that helped make them famous, while never forgetting their roots. Rivera spoke of his childhood, and the foundation he gained there has led to countless hours of giving back through his church in his adopted home of New Rochelle, which he said had some of the same feel of his old hometown.

MORE: 5 Greatest Mo-ments In Mariano Rivera's Hall Of Fame Career

And Mussina still makes his home in Montoursville, where he is the only boys’ high school basketball coach in the state who is also in the baseball Hall of Fame. Last spring Mussina led the Warriors to a district championship, the school’s first since 1985, when Mussina played for them.

Rivera described his Panamanian home as “a small town, but with a big heart.” Mussina’s town could be described the same way if you know about its history with the 1996 TWA Flight 800 tragedy -- 21 of the 230 people killed on board were from Montoursville, most of them high school students.

Both of these men from beloved small towns ended up in the most famous uniform in the most famous city. They didn’t merely survive. They became great.

Mussina already had a name for himself, but made it stand out a little bit more.

“I think that opportunity to pitch on a big stage ... it really was a big deal for my career because that kind of gave me the opportunity to throw more big games in big places," he said.

Rivera, meanwhile, became a New York icon. 

“Coming here and doing it on a stage as big as New York is, it’s nothing (more) to ask for,” Rivera said. “I’m grateful for the (Yankees) organization and grateful for my teammates. All those great players that were in front of me and helping me to accomplish this, there’s no words to describe it. So I thank God for all that.”

Follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN