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Randy Johnson retires, Cooperstown awaits

Jan 5, 2010, 8:42 PM EDT

Randy Johnson Dbacks.jpgAfter a stellar 22-year career Randy Johnson, The Big Unit, announced his retirement this evening.  He finishes with a record of 303-166. He racked up 4,785 strikeouts.  He won five Cy Young Awards, four of which came back-to-back-to-back-to-back, in the first four years of what has to be just about the best free agent signing ever.  While Roger Clemens may have a few family members who would plead his case, most would agree that Johnson was the most dominating and intimidating pitcher of his era.

But to me, it’s much more than the numbers that will define Randy Johnson’s legend. It’s the transformation.  I first saw Randy Johnson on TV as he pitched against the Braves on May 7, 1989.
I remember his performance distinctly, mostly because he was so damn
tall. Still, there was nothing about him that made me think the
guy would be in baseball in a year, let alone winning his 300th 20
years later. He was gangly and ineffective, going four innings, giving up six runs and walking six guys on the second worst offense in
the National League. When he was traded to the Mariners the following month I
thought “they gave up Mark Langston for that guy?” Mark Langston was an
All-Star who could strike guys out. Why on Earth would Seattle trade him for this wild beanpole?

Johnson slowly began to improve after the trade to Seattle, to the point where he was a genuinely average to slightly above average pitcher by 1992, though one who walked way, way too many guys.  He was 28 by then. I figured that he would peter out soon enough and would be remembered as a slightly better, left handed Bobby Witt.

Then something clicked, and after it clicked no one had a chance off of the guy for the next dozen years.

Johnson was always a difficult interview. Sometimes surly, but mostly just introspective and private. He wasn’t the sort that would go on and on about his craft.  If he was, however, he’d probably have an awful lot to say on the subjects of determination and concentration and above all else hard work.  What’s the knock on tall pitchers? That their mechanics are impossible because of their size? Tell me: was there anyone who had simpler, more fluid mechanics than Randy Johnson in his prime? Mastering those mechanics was the only way he’d ever go from an erratic gas thrower to a perennial Cy Young Award winner, and to do that had to take hours and hours of work.

Many people will be writing about Randy Johnson in the next couple of days, and when they do they will likely use the terms “gifted” and “overpowering” and “physical specimen.”  And they’ll be apt words because he was a gifted, overpowering physical specimen.

But most of us would have forgotten about the guy sometime in the mid-90s if he didn’t work, likely harder than any pitcher has ever worked before or since, to transform himself from that gifted but erratic thrower I saw in 1989 to the inner-circle Hall of Famer he is today, on the day of his retirement.

Congratulations on a spectacular career, Mr. Johnson.  See you in Cooperstown in 2015.

  1. Blake - Jan 6, 2010 at 6:35 AM

    Bill, obviously you are a valued assessor of the american past time of baseball. We all know that a neat haircut and a winning personality are all that is important in this era of performance enhancing durgs, liars and criminals. I too think that a man that went out every time and gave his all (possibly better than anyone else in his era) should be judged based on appearance and lack of a charismatic personality. Good call.

  2. GBSimons - Jan 6, 2010 at 8:08 AM

    Is it true that you’re a jerk if your username is “Great One?”

  3. John from Concord - Jan 6, 2010 at 8:14 AM

    I was at the game at Fenway many years ago when RJ (with the Mariners then) beaned Mike Greenwell and Greenwell just kind of laid on the ground for a really long time, like 5 minutes, before he was able to get up (with help) and stagger off the field. Hell of a fastball to get hit with.
    Sox couldn’t do *anything* against him, but managed a comeback win in (I think) the 8th when Andre Dawson teed off against some poor sap from Seattle’s bullpen.
    I have no point to make, I just felt like saying that.

  4. Levi Stahl - Jan 6, 2010 at 8:26 AM

    The moment the Unit became near-mythic for me was in game 7 of the 2001 World Series. The night before, as the Diamondbacks routed the Yankees, I had found myself thinking Brenly should take him out just in case he needed him in relief in game 7. Then I instantly corrected myself: no way he’d be able to use him on zero rest, no matter how desperate things got.
    I still remember how my wife and I both gasped the next night as we saw him standing tall in the bullpen, ready to come in and dominate once more.
    Good god, what a fun pitcher he was to watch.

  5. hobbyshop - Jan 6, 2010 at 8:57 AM

    I agree that just like Nolan Ryan, Randy Johnson was a thrower early in his career. He didn’t become a pitcher until he learned how to harness all that speed. Intimidation is not the way into the Hall of Fame for a pitcher. Control of that is. That is why the off speed pitch is what is so effective when they learn that just throwing 101 MPH isn’t always the way to go.
    His back problems really hurt in the end. It would have been nicer to have those 303 wins at the end of 20 seasons. I wouldn’t want to compare him to Early Winn who hung around to get to 300 wins also. I know that milestone is so tempting, but stopping at 299 and having your dignity is also something that gets people into the Hall of Fame (or at least should).

  6. JudyJ - Jan 6, 2010 at 9:11 AM

    I went to a Randy Johnson game at Yankee Stadium where he was striking out one hitter after another. I was thrilled to have him when he came to New York and sad to see him leave. He is one of the greatest pitchers of the last twenty years and I am sorry to see him go. Best of luck in retirement, Randy!

  7. Lewis - Jan 6, 2010 at 10:35 AM

    That was my first ever game when I was 5 or 6 years old. I still remember how dominant (and enormous) Randy Johnson was, and one of my lasting memories was watching him stretch in front of the Mariners dugout. He stayed my favorite player for the next decade until he went to the Yankees. I’m sad to see him go.

  8. John E - Jan 6, 2010 at 10:43 AM

    Since Randy spent a good part of his career in the American League I didn’t get to see him as much as I would have liked. But what I did see was quite impressive.
    We Philly fans had a guy we just called Lefty that I think people would agree belongs with Koufax and Spahn too. Lefty went 27-10 for the 1972 Phillies, a team that won a total of 59 games that year. He won 4 Cy Young awards and had 326 career wins with more than 4200 stikeouts. A first ballot hall-of-famer to boot.

  9. geezstring - Jan 6, 2010 at 10:53 AM

    The thing I liked about RJ was that he was not a loud mouthed bragger and I perceive that as being a little more humble. Being surly with reporters is a plus for me. And I understand the 300 wins plateau and the dominance he pitched with through “a lot” of his career. I also get the “comparison” to other pitchers of prominence. I just wonder about 1 thing – he lost 1 game for every 2 he won.

  10. YankeesfanLen - Jan 6, 2010 at 11:29 AM

    It’s funny how history becomes distorted so quickly. His demeanor was not exactly suited to NY anyway, but everyone recalls his lack of PR finesse from before the first pitch for the Yanks. People think it was from the tabloids but the initial faux pas was with WCBS-TV who swarmed him upon arrival. And some folks, even highly paid athletes, don’t take too kindly to this. Perhaps he needed Tiger’s security crew which wasn’t available at the time.
    The Yanks, at the time, did better with him than without. Even Jorge needed a rest back then, what’s the fuss?
    And, he won’t pull a Favre.

  11. mick-7-1961 - Jan 6, 2010 at 11:36 AM

    First ballot unanimous Hall Of Famer…hands down!

  12. Ross - Jan 6, 2010 at 12:37 PM

    My two favorite pitchers from my youth until now…Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux…for completely different reasons.

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  18. CallyWog - Mar 31, 2010 at 10:53 AM

    Hick & clubhouse cancer. Terrible attitude throughout his career- clashed with teammates and often made the team worse as a consequence. Blew it with the Yankees and averaged over 4 ERA in his last 5 seasons. Physically attacked journalists. Head-hunted against other batters. (“Oooh, but he was scary”– there’s nothing admirable about injuring other athletes) Never learned how to play the game right, learn how to be a constructive teammate, and exhibit a sense of decency. Kids shouldn’t idolize someone like Johnson. Sports embodies the values we want to capture and pass on as a society. If anything Johnson is a cautionary tale that if you’re born with talent, you can let it go to your head. You can be a fine player but a bad human being.

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