Inside Randy Johnson's Transformation from Awkward Enigma to 'The Big Unit'

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistJanuary 6, 2015

AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

My all-time favorite Randy Johnson story involves grocery shopping and orange juice. In Indianapolis.

Seriously. You were thinking, perhaps, his heroics in the 2001 World Series for the Arizona Diamondbacks? His no-hitter in 1990? His five Cy Youngs, 4,875 career strikeouts (second only to Nolan Ryan)? His perfect game in 2004?

I'll spot you all of those. I'll take what one of Johnson's former minor league roommates told me a couple of years back during a discussion of the evolution of one of baseball's all-timers from a wary and awkward prospect into the man waiting for a phone call from Cooperstown on Tuesday.

This was in the late 1980s, before Johnson debuted for the Expos at age 25 in 1988. He and Rex Hudler were teammates—and roommates—in Indianapolis, home of Montreal's Triple-A affiliate.

As roomies, the two of them would go shopping together. Then they would return to their apartment, where Johnson would place his groceries on one side of the refrigerator, his side, and warn Hudler to stay out of his stuff.

SAN FRANCISCO - 1989:  Rex Hudler #25 of the Montreal Expos celebrates during a 1989 season game against the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

"I'd play with him and drink his orange juice," Hudler, now a broadcaster for the Kansas City Royals, told me. "He'd tape a line on the carton where the orange juice level was, so that when he came in he could make sure I hadn't been drinking it, that the juice level hadn't dropped below where the tape was."

Hudler roared as he told that story, laughing hysterically at the memory. Can you blame him?

The point is, not all Hall of Famers arrive already fully built. Sometimes, the transition from a gangly, self-conscious, 6'10" kid into a fully mature strikeout machine takes a bit longer than anyone would like.

The Expos made Johnson their second-round pick in the 1985 draft. Four years later, they shipped him to Seattle along with pitchers Gene Harris and Brian Holman in a blockbuster deal that netted them ace lefty Mark Langston and a player to be named later (pitcher Mike Campbell).

In 1989, the Expos were in win-now mode, trying to save their franchise. And Johnson was a temperamental project who was far from a sure thing.

The Atlanta Braves had drafted Johnson in the fourth round in 1982, seeing the potential, but instead Johnson accepted a scholarship to the University of Southern California.

"I think all of us who played with him are ultra proud at what he turned into because the light didn't click on for him until late," said Damon Oppenheimer, one of Johnson's regular catchers at USC who today is the New York Yankees' amateur scouting director. "He wasn't a dominating pitcher in college. It wasn't like he was the best pitcher in the Pac-10.

"He showed you glimpses of what he could be, but it wasn't like he was best guy in league. By far. He probably wasn't the best guy on our staff either year."

SUSAN WALSH/Associated Press

No, in 1984 Johnson ranked behind right-hander Sid Akins, who was Texas' third-round pick that summer. In 1985, right-hander Brad Brink, who would be the Phillies' first-round pick in 1986, was USC's go-to guy.

By the time Montreal got him, Johnson had the overpowering fastball, all the tools any scout could want…and a fiery temper that often blew.

"Randy really battled inconsistency," said Orrin Freeman, the Expos' national cross-checker from 1988 to 1991 and current special assistant to the general manager for the Miami Marlins. "The reason he was a second-round pick instead of a first-rounder is that he'd throw in the mid-90s in the first inning, but in the second inning he'd be in the middle 80s.

"I had a friend who coached him [in a summer league] in Anchorage, Alaska, who said it was the same thing there. People would ask him, 'Is your arm hurt?' 'No.' 'Is your arm sore?' 'No.' That's probably why he didn't go in the first round, given the kind of arm he had and being left-handed.

"As he matured, he got more consistent. It wasn't immediate. You look at his career until age 25, and he was never even .500."

Early in the 1988 season, on the verge of being summoned to the majors for the first time, Johnson tried to catch a Jeff Blauser smash up the middle with his pitching hand during a game against Triple-A Richmond. At the time, Johnson was throwing well enough that some Montreal executives had traveled to watch him pitch.

Worried that his knuckle was broken, Indianapolis manager Joe Sparks removed Johnson from the game. Livid, Johnson promptly threw a right cross at the bat rack upon entering the dugout.

"So now he had X-rays on his pitching hand, and those were OK," Joe Kerrigan, Johnson's pitching coach at Double-A Jacksonville in 1987 and in Indianapolis in '88 and '89, told me during a conversation a couple of years ago. "And then he had X-rays on his right hand, and that knuckle was broken.

"Thank God it was his right hand."

So now Kerrigan's challenge was to keep Johnson in the rotation while working through his injured hand and control issues, and not endangering any of his own players in the process. You think creativity is not part of a pitching coach's job description? Here's what Kerrigan did: He obtained a plaster-of-Paris mannequin from an old L.S. Ayres department store in downtown Indianapolis.

And he set it up as a dummy batter in the bullpen for Johnson to throw simulated games against.

Eventually, though, Johnson had to face real hitters.

"Guys didn't want to face him anyway, but he needed to face left-handed hitters," Freeman said. "Larry Walker was on the team then, and I was there one day when Larry said, 'Hey, I want to get my teammate healthy, but I'm tired of facing this guy.'"

23 May 1993:  Outfielder Larry Walker of the Montreal Expos swings at the ball during a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hixon  /Allsport
Getty Images/Getty Images

So Razor Shines, a switch-hitter, volunteered to hit left-handed against Johnson.

"It became the biggest contest, Razor fouling balls off one after another," Freeman said. "He was taking close pitches. It was a real battle. Randy must have been throwing 100.

"Finally, Razor hits a ball over second base that would have been for a hit. He comes out of the cage and says, 'I switch-hit because I can, not because I have to.'"

Kerrigan remembers Johnson as a shy and introverted kid, very uncomfortable with his size. He remembers walking into restaurants for lunch, and the places going quiet as diners did a double-take at Johnson's size.

Johnson didn't win his first big league game until he was 25. And the man who retired with a career record of 303-166 had only 48 victories at 28.

By then, he was pitching in Seattle. The Expos didn't have time to wait.

They summoned him late in the '88 season, and he went 3-0 with a 2.42 ERA. Then, at 0-4 with a 6.67 in seven games (six starts) in '89, the Expos shipped him to Seattle on May 25.

The way the Expos viewed it, Langston was a sure thing. Johnson wasn't. Owner Charles Bronfman was ready to sell the Montreal club and wanted to make one last run at the World Series before he did.

Fact is, at the time, Johnson was still inconsistent enough that, internally among the Expos, it wasn't even unanimous that he was the best of the three pitchers Montreal was sending to Seattle.

"Randy was very talented and threw very hard, but when you looked at it in-depth, if you asked different people in our organization then to rank Brian Holman, Gene Harris and Randy Johnson, different people would have given you different orders of one, two and three," Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski, who was the Expos' GM at the time, told me a few years ago.

Said Freeman: "Holman really should have been a star. Great motion, great mound presence, great kid. He ended up hurting his arm, which happens.

"We gave up a lot to try and win."

The Expos did not win, finishing fourth in the NL East at 81-81 in 1989.

Bob Galbraith/Associated Press

Langston? A free agent after the '89 season, the Expos acquired him with the idea of attempting to sign him long-term.

"Langston's wife wanted to be an actress at the time, and when he became a free agent, we had Donald Sutherland trying to help us," Freeman said of the Canadian actor. "He was a huge Montreal fan. We sometimes had him narrate our season highlight film.

"When Langston became a free agent, Sutherland talked to him and said you can be an [actress] and live in Montreal. You don't have to live in L.A."

Nevertheless, Langston signed as a free agent with the California Angels after the '89 season.

Johnson, meanwhile, continued his slow development with the Mariners. He went 14-11 in 1990 with a league-leading 120 walks (and a no-hitter against Detroit). He went 13-10 in '91 with a league-leading 152 walks.

Then, as he was going 12-14 with a league-leading 144 walks in '92, Johnson had one of the most important conversations of his career with Nolan Ryan during a Mariners-Rangers series.

Kerrigan and other pitching coaches in Montreal and Seattle could help Johnson with his mechanics, maturity and certain other issues. Johnson, to this day, credits four pitching coaches in particular with the heavy lifting in his development: Kerrigan, the late Larry Bearnarth, Rick Williams (son of Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams) and Dan Warthen.

Mike Groll/Associated Press

But because of the similarities in their fastballs, Ryan could relate to Johnson on a different level. And here was his key suggestion: that Johnson land on the ball of his right foot, instead of the heel, upon delivering a pitch to the plate. Why? Because Ryan thought that landing on his heel was causing Johnson to fall toward third base. And by not taking his momentum toward the catcher, Ryan suggested, it was affecting Johnson's control.

Ryan, of all people, knew how walks could derail a career. He had gone through the same thing when he was a young prospect.

"I just think Randy was on the verge of putting it all together at that point in his career," Ryan said on a conference call about a month before Johnson won his 300th game in 2009. "We just happened to visit that day in Seattle, and we followed that up with a couple of other visits after.

"I appreciate him giving me credit, but if we hadn't visited that day, I feel like he was on the verge of putting it all together."

Finally, all of the components in place, Johnson in 1993 went 19-8 for Seattle and led the AL with 308 strikeouts in 255.1 innings. He walked only 99 hitters.

Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

"I'm happy for Randy," Freeman said. "There's a guy who came a long way from a skinny, left-handed kid who was wild and threw all over the place. He became one of the best left-handers ever, and he didn't get good until he was 25.

"Patience, you know? Baseball gives up on pitchers who are brought to the big leagues at 22, 23, 24 and then struggle. Curt Schilling didn't have a winning season until he was 25. Tom Glavine was 7-17 [at age 22 with the Atlanta Braves, in 1988].

"Today it's the 'Now Generation,' people want it now, and they give up on guys like that. For a college pitcher like Johnson to sign and get 300 wins? Come on, that's unbelievable.

"He grew up mentally and physically…that's how you get to the Hall of Fame."

No question, Cooperstown is a long way from stripping masking tape around an orange juice carton. Hudler was in Montreal's lineup on Sept. 15, 1988, when the man who would become known as the Big Unit earned his first big league victory.

"He was always bitter, but I'd talk smack to him," Hudler told me, chuckling, making clear his affinity for Johnson. "I was one of the only guys who could.

"I got to Montreal first and, after I did, he called me and said, 'Hey, you left a $77 phone bill.' I told him, 'One day, you'll be making more money than the rest of us combined. I'll get you for the phone bill when you get up here.'"

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball @ScottMillerBbl.


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