Flashbulbs will go off, people will stand and scream, some will clap, some will jeer. The “Big Unit” is returning to Seattle and will be going for his 299th victory in the Major Leagues.
It will be Randy Johnson’s fourth return to Seattle since leaving after a decade in Seattle, but clearly none had such monumental implications.
Johnson has always been something of a physical anomaly. Left-handed power pitchers aren’t exactly a dime-a-dozen, nor are pitchers who are nearly seven feet tall.
Johnson falls into both categories, but something that he possesses, besides a combination of rare attributes, is excellent control. Throughout the history of baseball, power pitchers and tall pitchers have had a hard time developing command, repeating their delivery, and ultimately gaining control.
It wasn’t always that easy. Johnson was an outcast among pitchers, a freak, a circus act. A near-seven-footer who could throw nearly 100 miles-per-hour, he was intriguing, but unrefined.
Even as he was terrorizing left-handed batters in the American League, at the beginning of his rise to prominence, he’d occasionally unleash a pitch—or throw that crossed—or passed home plate at about 15 feet in the air, flying over the left-handed batters’ box, traveling with a velocity in the mid-90s, and hit the netting installed to protect fans from foul balls. Just ask John Kruk.
Johnson is also atypical. A consummate perfectionist but occasionally unprofessional. Quiet, and private, but he barks to no one in particular, probably himself, as he leaves the mound following a bad inning, he also barks after a good inning.
It’s hard to tell if Johnson hates baseball, or loves baseball so much that each season, each game, each inning, each out, each pitch, each rotation of the ball on its path to the plate is his personal homage to the game, one he’s determined to make as perfect as possible.
And with a memorable frame, a surly attitude, and a far from even demeanor, nearly every baseball fan has a memory from the past two decades that includes Johnson.
In Seattle, we were lucky enough to partake in a full decade of that time.
I’ll remember Johnson as one of the few pitchers of my generation who had “a little cowboy in them.” He’s my era’s Nolan Ryan.
When baseball’s perception transformed a 200 inning pitcher from a fourth starter to a workhorse, Johnson reeled off four seasons, from 1999-2002, which were one-and-two-thirds innings short, combined, from being four straight seasons where Johnson pitched 250 or more innings.
Johnson pitched 271-and-two-thirds innings in 1999, the most by any pitcher in a single season since 1986. He won 24 games in 2002, flirting with the 25-win-plateau which hasn’t been reached since 1990.
As a city—and maybe my lack of worldliness defines this as unique—Seattle seems to love their freaks, their dirtbags, their perfectionists, and their high-effort guys.
Rich Amaral, Steve Scheffler, Sam Perkins, Alex Diaz, Josh Brown and many more have achieved cult-hero status in this city.
It’s almost bizarre to think of the other sets of fans, in Arizona, in San Francisco, in Houston, in New York, that Johnson has acquired in recent years, fans who didn’t watch a man-child turn into a man.
Randy Johnson was our freak. He was our Quasimodo turned Casanova. He was on our walls, he was on our television sets, and he was on our side. But like all good things, his time in Seattle would eventually end.
When Johnson was traded to the Astros on the trade deadline in 1998, the tall lefty figured to have a handful of year’s left in the bigs. He’d suffered from back injuries, but he dominated when he was healthy.
However, at the time, it seemed absurd to think that a 34-year-old power pitcher could possibly have another decade of baseball left in him, let alone another 165 wins and counting.
Every now and then, I’ll read a story about the oldest person on earth. It’s always interesting to read that they’ve outlasted their children, even when their children lived well into their 80s.
Randy Johnson was traded for Freddy Garcia, John Halama and Carlos Guillen. The Mariners were in the middle of a youth-movement, and the oft-temperamental Johnson made it clear that he wouldn’t be returning to the city in which he’d become one of baseball’s best pitchers.
The same upheaval would watch Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez leave.
Once again an anomaly, the 45-year old Johnson has outlasted Garcia, who is struggling to make a major-league return, and Halama, who hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2006. He’s lasted through three position changes for Guillen.
Of the “Big Three,” the three former-Mariners stars who left in a four-year span, Griffey and Alex Rodriguez are the other two, he’s the least celebrated and the least denigrated.
So when he takes the mound in a San Francisco Giants uniform, looking to step closer to history, the crowd’s reaction to him, compared to the other absent stars upon return, may be the least uniform.
Modern baseball history is a story told by imagery. I remember where I was when Johnson “raised his hands to the heavens,” but I also remember where I was when Luis Gonzalez hit a weak fly ball over the Yankees’ infield to win the 2001 World Series. I remember Johnson and Curt Schilling sharing the podium to accept the World Series MVP award.
To borrow a phrase from Dave Grosby, I hope that Johnson gets a huge ovation. I hope that the work that he did, and his contributions to the survival of baseball in Seattle is celebrated, and when game starts, that the Mariners “beat his brains in.”
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