One day in 1988, during batting practice, the Montreal Expos’ Tim Raines collided head-first with a young, 6'10'' pitcher named Randy Johnson. Raines looked up and exclaimed, “You are a big unit.” The nickname stuck and the Big Unit went on to become one of the best pitchers in the history of baseball.
Coming to the Mariners in the Mark Langston trade in 1989, Randy was a work in progress. In 1990 he showed his volcanic upside pitching the first no-hitter in Mariners history against the Detroit Tigers. However, his rawness also showed as he walked six batters in the game.
Later that year, he struck out 19 Chicago White Sox batters in a five-hit shutout walking just three batters. He seemed to be growing, but was still erratic in most of his starts.
In ‘91 and ‘92 he led the league in walks and in ’93 and ’94 he led the league in hit batters. He also had over 200 strikeouts each of those years.
The development of the Big Unit took a huge step upwards at the end of the 1992 season as he looked to Hall-of-Famer Nolan Ryan for help. Ryan noticed a flaw in his mechanics and the fix resulted in his patented slider, Mr. Snappy, becoming a lethal weapon, especially combined with his 100 mile per hour fastball.
All of Randy’s accomplishments could compose a series of books, so the focus here will be on his defining moments with the Mariners. Not the no-hitter. Not the multiple one-hit masterpieces. Not the strikeouts. Not John Kruk’s infamous at-bat in the All-Star game.
Randy has three specific defining moments with Seattle that ultimately affected the state of the Mariners today.
In 1995, the Mariners team had the slogan “Refuse to Lose,” based on the late season heroics that saw them catch the Anaheim Angels, overcoming a 14-game divisional deficit. The Mariners and Angels tied for the best record in the American League West and were destined to play a one-game playoff to see which team would play the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs.
Johnson pitched a three-hit shutout, dominating the Angels with 12 strikeouts. Defining moment number one was in the history books. The Mariners had finally won a division championship after 18 seasons and were on their way to the playoffs for the first time.
Randy was unable to pitch in the five-game series against the heavily favored Yankees until Game 3 because of the one-game playoff, watching as Seattle fell behind two games to none. Seattle won game three behind the Unit’s seven-inning, 10 strikeout performance, but Game 5 is where his second defining moment came.
The series was tied and game five was deadlocked at 4-4 after nine innings, when Randy was called upon in relief. His slow walk from the bullpen ignited the crowd and his teammates. He pitched the 10th, 11th, and 12th innings on short rest and allowed a run in the final frame as the Yankees looked poised to steal the series.
The Mariners drew upon their refuse-to-lose attitude in the bottom of the 12th inning, winning the game on Edgar Martinez’ double that scored Ken Griffey Jr.
Randy Johnson had played a pivotal part in the Mariners’ success in 1995 winning the Cy Young Award with an 18-2 record, a 2.48 ERA, and 294 punch-outs. However, Randy’s emotion and leadership was the catalyst that propelled the M’s to their most successful season to date and cemented him as a legend in Seattle.
His last defining moment came in 1998. Following his fantastic 1997 season in which Johnson had a 20–4 record (the first 20-win season for a Mariner), 291 strikeouts, and a 2.28 ERA, the Mariners were distraught over their finances.
Trying to figure out how to support a payroll that included big raises to many stars from the ’95 team as well as upcoming contract negotiations with Ken Griffey, Alex Rodriguez, and Randy Johnson, the Mariners chose to trade the Big Unit for a big ransom.
The idea was that they might be able to resign one or maybe two of the three huge superstars and Randy was coming off back surgery in 1996. The risk out-weighed the reward and the upside of Alex Rodriguez was taking the focus of the team’s budget.
Randy was sent to the Houston Astros midway through the 1998 season for pitchers John Halama, Freddy Garcia, and shortstop Carlos Guillen.
Johnson was dominant the rest of his career winning four more Cy Young Awards, a World Series, and pitched a perfect game as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
In 1999, Griffey Jr. requested to be traded (following the death of his Orlando neighbor, golfer Payne Stewart) to be closer to his family. In 2000, Alex Rodriguez opted to sign a $250 million free-agent contract with Texas. Seattle had lost all three of their superstars.
Mariners’ fans felt soulless and empty during the 2000 off-season despite the recent opening of Safeco Field that was built because of the success of the ’95 team. The players who were supposed to lead Seattle toward a dynasty were gone. The easiest one to sign may have been the Big Unit, but hindsight is 20/20, and the rest is history.
Fortunately, for the Mariners, 2001 fielded a very productive team put together by free agent signings like Ichiro Suzuki and players obtained in the trades for the Big Unit and The Kid. Their success soothed the transition into the next chapter of Mariners’ history, but fans are still wondering what could have been if the Unit was a life-long Mariner.
Randy won 130 games for the Mariners, more than he won with any of the other five teams he played for. He developed into a dominant force in Seattle. He owns 10 of the 15 greatest pitching efforts in Mariner history. Despite his grand success after leaving Seattle, when he goes into the Hall of Fame Mariner fans hope he is wearing a hat with a triad or a compass on it. That would be the ultimate defining moment for Seattle baseball.