The Big Unit

Today is not his birthday (that was September 10th), but I am compelled (it is OCD, after all) to write about Hall-of-Fame pitcher Randy Johnson. In my 20+ years of working in major league baseball he was, by far, my favorite player to watch either in person or on TV. In the context of baseball Johnson was the very definition of sui generis.

From a picture of The Big Unit:


See the source image


Let’s see…when I began my first full-time job in baseball in 1988 I compiled a list of my picks for the top five prospects in baseball. Johnson was the only pitcher on the list. I had much disagreement about The Big Unit with a friend of mine who was a sports radio host. He thought Johnson would never amount to much because his control was not good. I thought a pitcher with Johnson’s stuff and strikeout rates had a real chance to be great.

The team with whom he first signed, the Montreal Expos, must have thought he had irredeemable flaws because they traded Johnson to the Mariners in 1989 after he had only made ten starts with Montreal. Johnson showed flashes of brilliance in his first three full seasons with Seattle. He led the league in strikeouts in 1992 and pitched a no-hitter in 1990. However, he also led the league in walks in each of those three seasons.

After fellow fireballer Nolan Ryan gave Johnson some tips in 1992 The Big Unit (his most used nickname) turned into an amazing pitcher. For example, in the strike-shortened 1995 season Johnson compiled an 18-2 W-L record and led the league in ERA and in strikeouts. In his career Johnson had over 300 wins, a very lofty mark, nearly 5,000 strikeouts—the most by any left-handed pitcher in history, and won five Cy Young awards including four consecutive (1999-2002). Johnson led his league in strikeouts nine times, in ERA four times and in W-L percentage four times. He pitched one of only 23 perfect games in major league history (when no opposing batter reaches base) and, at age 40, was the oldest to do so.

For much of his career Johnson needed only two pitches: his 98-100 MPH fastball and his wicked 90-ish MPH slider. His slightly-above sidearm release and his great size (he is 6’10”) made him death on left-handed batters.

OK, I have a good Randy Johnson story…when I worked for the Padres we shared a spring training complex with the Mariners. I don’t exactly recall how this came to pass, but the Padres played the Mariners in an exhibition game at the complex, but on a side field and not in the main stadium. Johnson started the game for Seattle. He was pitching to Rob Deer (I think) and threw a pitch that the home-plate umpire called a ball. Johnson angrily grabbed the ball out of the air when the catcher threw it back to him. Johnson’s next pitch was a called strike and he yelled at the umpire, “The last one was a strike, too!” Remember, this was just an exhibition game. He then threw Deer one of his patented sliders that Deer must have missed by a foot for strike three.

The year the Padres won the National League pennant and played in the World Series (1998) they beat Johnson twice in the National League Division Series. (I was Director of Baseball Operations for the Padres from November, 1995 until I resigned effective July, 1999.) After being traded to Houston by Seattle at the trade deadline (July 31st), Johnson had been lights-out compiling a 10-1 record with a ridiculous 1.28 ERA. The most nervous I’ve ever been watching a baseball game was Game 1 of that NLDS in Houston. Johnson started for the Astros and Padres’ ace Kevin Brown started for San Diego. Brown was brilliant finishing with an NLDS record 16 strikeouts and the Padres squeaked out a 2-1 win. Right after the game ended I tried to get up so I could go to the Padres’ clubhouse, but my legs were like jelly and I had to sit and to compose myself for about 10 minutes before I could actually walk.

I LOVED watching Randy Johnson pitch. Somehow, I guess, I sensed there would never be anyone else like him. I don’t watch or follow baseball anymore and haven’t in years, but I just felt like writing this post today.





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