Former Mariner Randy Johnson, who retired after the 2009 season, will throw out the first pitch Monday at the Mariners' home opener.
Randy Johnson is a full-time father and husband these days. It’s all offseason now for the man who, as a pitcher, brings to mind the famous words of Bum Phillips: “He may not be the best, but it doesn’t take long to call roll.”
In Seattle, certainly, the Big Unit belongs in the pantheon of the greatest and most colorful athletes to ever pass this way. No one was ever more intense, or more ornery.
On Monday, Johnson will step to the Safeco Field mound to throw the ceremonial first pitch, one final throw in the city where he harnessed his mechanics and unleashed his glowering dominance upon the baseball world.
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The death stare that faced hitters as he peered in over the top of his glove has softened now. Johnson, who always seemed fueled by an inner rage, has softened.
“There’s a natural mellowing out that’s taking place,” said Alan Nero, his longtime agent.
It’s a transformation that had begun even before he announced his retirement on Jan. 5. In a column he wrote for ESPN the Magazine in 2008, Johnson said he finally was able to relax in the twilight of his career, to appreciate the moment.
“That’s new for me,” he wrote. “I never really enjoyed anything I’d done in my career. When you begin to have success, more success is expected of you. I get that; I expect it of myself. People have said, rightly or wrongly, that I’ve been kind of a prickly guy. But that’s part of why I’ve been so good. I’ve never given in to anyone.”
But now there’s no one left to prove wrong, no fire left to stoke. It’s all there in the record book, and soon enough on his Cooperstown plaque: the 303 victories, the 4,875 strikeouts, the two no-hitters (including a perfect game), the five Cy Youngs and the co-MVP award of the 2001 World Series.
“For a period of time, he might have been the best pitcher on the planet,” said another agent, Barry Meister.
There’s also the legacy not found in black and white. The batters who begged out of the lineup or bailed out of the batter’s box (see Walker, Larry; and Kruk, John). The teammates he forced, through example or maybe pure fear, to approach the game with something resembling Johnson’s intensity.
The famous story is that when Johnson called his dad to revel in the no-hitter he threw for the Mariners in 1990, his dad’s response was, “How come you walked six batters?”
When his father, Bud Johnson, a former police officer, died on Christmas Day, 1992, Johnson dedicated his career to him.
“I focused on being the best I could be, not better than others, but the best I could be,” he wrote in ESPN. “That meant having to dig a little deeper when I was tired, being able to throw 130 or 140 pitches, being a warrior.”
When Meister called Johnson on Jan. 1 once to wish him a happy New Year, he found the Big Unit in the gym. At 9 a.m.
“If I take January 1 off,” he told Meister, “someone will be one day ahead of me.”
But that sort of attitude can only be sustained for so long, and Johnson stretched it out as long as he could, 22 years’ worth, until his shoulder gave out one last time, just as his back had given out earlier. He fought through the back surgeries, but this time decided his arm was giving him a message. And he made it clear in January there would be no Brett Favre wavering, no Roger Clemens return.
“Without a doubt, 100 percent, I’ll be retiring at this time,” he said in a conference call, adding, “I really wanted to go out on my terms.”
Johnson has taken up snow skiing now, and more often than not, you can find him driving the car pool for one of his four children, aged 8 to 14, or attending one of their sporting events.
“He’s going to take this year to catch up and do many things he never had a chance to do,” Nero said. “He’s enjoying his family, four wonderful children and a great wife. He’s enjoying the heck out of catching up and bonding with his kids.”
And he has re-bonded with Seattle, and the Mariners organization, despite any tension and hard feelings that might have existed through a contract dispute and subsequent trade to Houston in July 1998. In each of his returns — with Arizona, or the Yankees, or finally San Francisco last May — Johnson was greeted warmly, if not reverently, by the crowds at Safeco.
When team president Chuck Armstrong called almost immediately upon Johnson’s retirement announcement to invite him to Monday’s opener, Johnson accepted immediately. Armstrong couldn’t help but note that across the country, Pedro Martinez threw out the first pitch at the Red Sox’s home opener last week.
“Pedro left under circumstances not completely dissimilar to how Randy left here,” Armstrong said. “There were some issues Randy’s last year or so, but I thought there had been enough water under the bridge. I got a chance to talk to Randy, especially last year when he came back. You look around at what he meant to this franchise and this city, I thought it was the right thing to do. We’re pleased, happy and excited he’s coming back.”
“I don’t think Randy is going to be dwelling on anything negative,” Nero said. “He was very touched and pleased, excited, to get the invitation.”
“I don’t think he has any bitterness toward anyone,” Meister added. “I think time gives you perspective. At the end of your career, it’s kind of like when a relative passes away, and all you remember are the good things. He has so many fond memories of Seattle, and that magic season. He wouldn’t come back on opening day if he didn’t think it was one of those things that complete the circle.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org