Pitching legend Randy Johnson spent 10 years with the Mariners, but will enter the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday as an Arizona Diamondback. “I had so much fun in Seattle,” he recently told Larry Stone. “But I got to another level after I left.’’
PHOENIX — Clearly, Randy Johnson is no longer the glowering giant who seemed to be perpetually brooding over some perceived slight — such as any opponent who had the audacity to step to the plate with a bat in his hand.
Five years removed from the game, and on the verge of his life’s crowning achievement — Sunday’s Baseball Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown, N.Y. — Johnson was relaxed, cheerful and expansive during a full day of media interviews last week.
Hall of Fame class of 2015
A look at the players to be inducted Sunday into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown:
• Only player in major league history with at least 3,000 hits, 600 doubles, 400 stolen bases and 250 home runs.
• Spent all 20 seasons with Houston Astros, hitting .281 with 1,844 runs scored (15th all-time), 291 home runs and 414 stolen bases.
• Nicknamed the Big Unit, the 6-foot-10 left-hander led his league in strikeouts nine times, earning four ERA titles and recording 100 complete games and 37 shutouts.
• His 4,875 strikeouts rank No. 2 all-time behind Nolan Ryan’s 5,714, and his 10.61 strikeouts per nine innings rank first all-time.
• Grew up with five brothers and sisters in a one-room home on the outskirts of Santo Domingo.
• Eight-time All-Star who finished career with a 219-100 record in 18 years for a winning percentage of .687.
• Finished 21-year big league career with a 213-155 record, 154 saves, 3,084 strikeouts and a 3.33 ERA.
• Acquired by Atlanta Braves for Doyle Alexander on Aug. 12, 1987. Only Braves player to be part of the franchise’s run of 14 consecutive division titles from 1991-2005.
• Appeared in 41 postseason games, compiling a 15-4 record, a 2.67 ERA and a record 199 strikeouts.
“Since I’m retired,’’ he said with a grin, “I like to think I’m not wound as tight.”
All those battles he fought, the ones that fueled the Big Unit throughout his 25-year pro career and made him the most intimidating pitcher of his era — with apologies to Roger Clemens and fellow inductee Pedro Martinez — have been released into the ether.
Johnson’s intensity is now redirected toward his avocation, photography. If you ask him a question about his shooting, be prepared for a long, excruciatingly detailed account of, say, an adventure in Botswana involving a cheetah, a leopard and a pack of wild dogs. “My National Geographic moment,’’ he said. “I put my camera down, just to take it in.”
Or the pride of lions he watched try to retrieve a dead baby elephant out of a pond. He tells these stories with the trademark passion that he has redirected toward photography. Johnson notes that it’s akin to pitching — he forges a game plan and then focuses on his subject, instead of the catcher’s glove.
“I know it’s not baseball, but it’s exciting to me,” he said. “You’re out of your element and you get excited, capturing moments like that. I’m not any good. I just enjoy it.”
Yet even in his sublime contentment at age 51, tanned and mostly fit — except for the gel injections he takes for a bum knee, and the torn rotator cuff he suffered in his final season while batting, of all things, and never got repaired — Johnson can’t quite help himself.
He’s always been someone who lets things gnaw at him when he’s bothered. Johnson has an almost obsessive need to clear the air. On this day, what’s gnawing at him, quite transparently, is his decision to go into the Hall of Fame as a Diamondback rather than a Mariner.
Johnson knows I will be writing this story for the Seattle market, and he wants to make sure that those fans — the ones who watched him, in the 1990s, transform from a wildly erratic youngster into the devastating ace of aces — aren’t put off by his call.
Johnson rationalized the decision in a national conference call. He defended it, unsolicited and at length, during an hourlong news conference later in the week at Chase Field. And he doubled back to the topic in a one-on-one interview we had in Phoenix.
“I got elected to the Hall of Fame for my body of work,’’ he said. “Seattle was a huge body part of that. I got the bulk of my wins in Seattle. It was really my apprenticeship, if you will.
“But then I came here for seven years and I was pitching at a whole other level. The years I played here (Arizona) were my best years, and I had many more of them. I had to think with my head and my heart. … If I could wear two emblems on my plaque, I would. I can’t.”
"[Seattle] was really my apprenticeship, if you will. But then I came here for seven years and I was pitching at a whole other level.”
The notion that people in Seattle might think he’s somehow dissing them eats at Johnson, just as it once ate at him that some people thought he had tanked the early part of the 1998 season before his trade from the Mariners to Houston.
But Johnson opted not to take the easy way out, like Greg Maddux and Tony La Russa, and eschew an emblem altogether.
“I feel I owe it to one or the other, Seattle or here,’’ he said. “So then I decided, it’s got to be Arizona. It wasn’t easy, but looking at my body of work, I hope people would understand that. That means a lot to me. I love Seattle. I wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame if it wasn’t for my Seattle years.”
Johnson says wistfully that he wishes he had taken more pictures while he played for the Mariners. Oh, he dabbled in photography in those days, but if he had shot with the same documentarian’s eye for detail and narrative in those days that he does now, he realizes what a treasure trove of history he would have had.
“I had the cameras, and I just didn’t do it,’’ he says. “Can you imagine some of the photos I could have had?”
|Randy Johnson statistics|
|Johnson started with Montreal, was traded to Seattle in 1989 and ended up playing 22 seasons for six different clubs.|
He played with Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Omar Vizquel, Jay Buhner and Alex Rodriguez in their formative years, and watched the Mariners ballclub transform into a playoff team in the magic of 1995. He insinuated himself into the burgeoning Seattle grunge and rock scene and befriended the likes of Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, Dave Grohl of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters, and Kim Thayil of Soundgarden. Johnson watched Nirvana play its first show.
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“I enjoyed walking the streets of Seattle and taking photographs,’’ he said. “Lake Union and watching the hydros (on Lake Washington) and thinking, ‘My God, why is anybody going to buy stock in Starbucks? What is Starbucks? What is so exciting about coffee?’
“Seattle meant a lot to me. I just want them to know that.’’
Johnson didn’t shoot many pictures in those days because he had a career to worry about. It’s hard to fathom now, but his success was far from guaranteed.
He led the American League in walks in each of his first three full years in the majors with Seattle. Honing his mechanics as a 6-foot-10 fireballer was problematic, and he fluctuated wildly early in his career. Johnson recalls Jim Fanning, an Expos executive, meeting with Johnson as a Montreal minor-leaguer to ask what the deal was.
“He said, ‘Randy, you could strike out 12 in six innings, but you could walk seven in three or four.’ That’s what I was dealing with.”
I’m convinced that a big part of the fierce, hyper-intense persona Johnson developed stemmed from the fact that it took him so long to make it, with so many setbacks along the way. As a youngster, “I never thought I was major-league-caliber material. There were so many players in high school I thought, ‘Wow, you are light years ahead of me.’ ’’
Same in college at USC, where he says now, with no disrespect, that he learned more about photography than pitching. Same in the minors, as he watched less-talented but more reliable teammates get called up before him as he tried desperately to find that level of consistency.
Part of his me-against-the-world personality no doubt stemmed from the sense of isolation Johnson felt as an awkward, gangly youth in Livermore, Calif. In a 2000 interview with the magazine Guideposts for Youth, he said, “It’s hard to mix with a crowd when you’re walking down the hallway and everybody else is a foot shorter. I remember hanging out with my friends, like at the mall, and thinking people were staring at me.’’
Two seminal events shaped Johnson into the pitcher we remember, the one who stands second to Nolan Ryan on the all-time strikeout list and fifth in career victories by a left-hander.
One was a tutelage session he had in 1992 with Ryan, arranged by Rangers pitching coach Tom House. House helped Johnson work out a mechanical flaw while Ryan schooled him on the mental side of being a power pitcher.
The other galvanizing event was the death of his father, Buddy, a police officer in Livermore, on Christmas Day 1992. The two were close, and Johnson was understandably devastated. Whereas the work with Ryan and House gave Johnson the tools for greatness, his father’s death gave him the motivation and focus.
“His father’s passing was a real tough deal for Randy,’’ said former pitcher Brian Holman, who came up through the Montreal system with Johnson and was traded to Seattle with him and Gene Harris for Mark Langston in May 1989.
“It really changed him in the sense of, ‘This is what I do, and my destiny is to be this pitcher. I need to do everything I can to make my mark in baseball.’ Then, it was really unfair when he put it together.’’
Johnson’s malevolent glare, barely peeking over the top of his glove as he regarded the batter (with visible disdain), was a sight no hitter wanted to see. Especially left-handed hitters, whose quavering at the whim of Johnson was brought home to comic extent by John Kruk and Larry Walker in the All-Star Games of 1993 and ’97.
At first, it was intimidation by happenstance, because Johnson had no idea where his 100 mph fastball was going to go. When he harnessed his control, Johnson’s mean streak served as even more of a deterrent to hitters.
“When you’re 6-10 and throw 100 mph, if they think you’re a little crazy, it’s a good thing,’’ Holman said.
Said Johnson with just a hint of a twinkle: “I got my mechanics down and became more of a polished pitcher. Then, when I threw a pitch under your chin, it was because I wanted to.”
Johnson characterized himself as “something of a clown,” particularly early in his career. It was a fun-loving side many teammates but few outsiders ever saw. That persona changed as his start approached and, like Bruce Banner being crossed, he morphed into the fearsome Big Unit.
“He had to start that the day before he pitched and maintain it until he finished his outing,’’ Holman said. “He changed his demeanor to basically, ‘I’m going to kill you.’ It was the button he needed to push to be dominating.”
And Johnson became more dominating by measures in Seattle, through the first of six 300 strikeout seasons in 1993, the Cy Young ’95 season (and epic relief appearance in Game 5 of the Division Series against the Yankees) and the 20-win 1997 season.
But it was tumultuous as well. Trade rumors always abounded, and he came close to being dealt to Toronto in 1992. There was delicious speculation of a Mariano Rivera-Johnson swap in 1997, and Johnson to the Dodgers for Hideo Nomo in May 1998.
An injury in 1996 required the first of Johnson’s three back surgeries. A contract dispute turned bitter and led indirectly to his eventual trade to Houston on July 31, 1998 (a deal that brought Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and John Halama to Seattle). At the time of the trade, Johnson was 9-10 with a 4.33 ERA for the Mariners. But he also was leading the league in innings pitched, strikeouts and complete games.
With Houston, Johnson was 10-1, 1.28 in 11 starts — four of them shutouts. It was the best stretch of his career, including the four consecutive Cy Young seasons he would have with Arizona. Johnson is quick to point out that in Houston, he benefitted from a stalwart closer in Billy Wagner, a potent offense (the Astros led the NL in runs) and the spacious Astrodome. But mainly, he believes, his mind was liberated from the stress of an impending trade everyone knew was coming.
“I look at my numbers (with the Mariners), and they weren’t Randy-like, I guess,’’ he said. “I let that kind of stuff linger and dwell. The uncertainty. It affected me a little bit. But it wasn’t like I wasn’t trying. I busted my ass for my teammates.”
But Johnson long ago made peace with the Mariners, getting inducted into their Hall of Fame in 2012. He is proud of the fact that many Mariners executives will be in Cooperstown for the ceremony. So will former Mariners catcher Dan Wilson, Holman and friends from high school and college.
Like many Mariners fans, he can’t fathom how the powerhouse Mariners squad of his Seattle heyday, with four Hall of Fame-caliber players, never made a World Series.
“You can’t get your head around that,’’ he said softly. “Why? Why didn’t we? Why didn’t we?”
He believes that in 1995, the team was “gassed mentally and physically” after their emotional series with the Yankees. The Mariners fell to Cleveland in the ALCS. In 1997, the Mariners won the AL West but were ousted in the first round by Baltimore, with Mike Mussina twice outdueling Johnson.
Johnson finally reached the World Series — and won a title as co-MVP with Curt Schilling — in 2001. That was the year the Mariners won 116 games, and after the Diamondbacks won the NL pennant, Johnson put a call through to Martinez and Buhner, who were still battling the Yankees in the ALCS.
“Somehow I got hold of them and said, “I’m pulling for you to beat New York, because wouldn’t that be cool to play against you guys in the World Series,’” Johnson recalled.
The Mariners, alas, were ousted in five games by the Yankees, and that possibility expired. And now Johnson will enter Cooperstown as a Diamondback — but one fully steeped in his Mariner heritage.
People call Safeco Field “The House that Griffey Built,” but the Big Unit — who led the ’95 stretch drive with a 7-0, 1.45 ERA finish, including a complete-game win in the one-game playoff over Langston and the Angels — deserves his own wing.
“I had so much fun in Seattle,’’ he said. “I learned to pitch and learned to play the game growing up together with so many great players. Junior is the best player I ever played with. He’s the Willie Mays of my era, and I feel very fortunate I got to play with him. Edgar, I feel, is the best hitter I ever played with.
“But I got to another level after I left — a level I never envisioned.’’