Randy Johnson and Mark McGwire's Years Together at USC's Baseball Factory

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistJuly 25, 2015

USC Athletics

One entered the University of Southern California as a pitcher, and that didn't last. His bat was too valuable.

The other entered as a pitcher, and that nearly didn't last. The strike zone was too elusive.

Together, they fought on, as Mark McGwire and Randy Johnson, two young Trojans, in two quick years together, did what college kids have done since the first university opened its doors: try to figure it all out.

The years were 1983 and 1984. That Oakland Raiders coach Jack Del Rio was a catcher on those teams only adds to the legend.

Eric Risberg/Associated Press/Associated Press

Back then, the notion of Johnson standing onstage in Cooperstown this Sunday, getting inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, would have been more far-fetched than the thought of him in Botswana, shooting a riveting picture of a leopard munching on a rib cage.

"I look back on his career and I think to when I was a kid reading about Nolan Ryan," McGwire, now the Los Angeles Dodgers hitting coach, said of Johnson. "It's almost the same parallel. Great velocity, and then one year suddenly in the majors they got it. Hall of Famers. Unbelievable.

"That's why you never give up on anybody."

It's staggering now to think of this trio as teammates. It's more staggering to note that USC failed to win, finishing tied for second in the Pac-10 in each of those years.

"I think I took more away from USC knowing photography than I did with my own pitching skills and development there," Johnson said. "And that's no disrespect to anything. I just didn't develop probably as fast as I was hoping."

There is a picture, a classic picture, that was published in the USC baseball program in 1984. In it, legendary baseball coach Rod Dedeaux, who led the Trojans to 11 national titles, is standing behind his two big men, resting his left hand on McGwire's broad shoulder and his right hand on Johnson's.

They all are wearing Team USA uniforms in anticipation of the 1984 Olympics.

Except, early that summer, Dedeaux cut Johnson from the team.

True story. Now on deck for Cooperstown immortality after striking out more hitters than any left-hander in major league history (4,875), Johnson could get no closer to Team USA in 1984 than posing for a black-and-white photo.

Meantime, McGwire was the Sporting News College Player of the Year in '84, leading the nation with 32 home runs and poised to play an enormous role on Team USA.

Associated Press

"Rod Dedeaux was a big advocate of young kids throwing strikes," McGwire said. "The potential was there, obviously, by his size and by the velocity. But Randy, for some reason, just couldn't find the strike zone.

"We didn't have any left-handers on the Olympic team, and I remember Rod saying he didn't throw enough strikes. He was supposed to be on it. I remember we took a picture for the USC program.

"But he didn't throw enough strikes, and we found out later what happened when he did."

All angles and elbows at 6'10" when he pitched in those days, it wasn't until 1992, when Johnson was with the Seattle Mariners, that a tip from then-Texas Rangers pitching coach—and USC alum—Tom House sent Johnson toward immortality. The tip: If he could land on the ball of his right foot instead of his heel while delivering a pitch, it would pull his finishing momentum toward the plate instead of toward third base.

"It wasn't frustrating," Johnson said of missing out on the Team USA experience. "That just goes to show you where I was in the talent pool of everybody that did get chosen to be on that team.

"I do recall trying out for it, but I didn't make the last cut. I suppose I was disappointed at the time."

Johnson came to USC as a freshman from Livermore, California, in 1982, opting for college over the Atlanta Braves, who made him their fourth-round pick that spring. In his freshman season in '83, he went 5-0 with three saves in 15 games (four starts). He fanned 34 and walked 32 in 47 innings.

McGwire, meantime, went 3-1 with a 2.78 ERA as a sophomore that spring. At the plate, he belted 19 homers and collected 59 RBI in 53 games while hitting .319 as a first and third baseman.

It was the last time he pitched.

"Marcel Lachemann was the pitching coach and recruited me to be a pitcher at USC," said McGwire, who was Montreal's eighth-round draft pick out of high school but elected to attend USC instead. "The first day of practice, Marcel stands up and says, 'Unfortunately, I'm going to take over as the California Angels' minor league pitching instructor.' I'm like, 'Oh, no!'"

Marcel Lachemann
Marcel LachemannJed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Always a slugger, pitching still was McGwire's first love. But in the summer of 1983, he was invited to play in a college league in Alaska. He surrendered four runs without recording an out in his first appearance. The coaches moved him to first base and then asked him what he thought about staying there the rest of the summer.

At USC, Dedeaux was opposed to the idea. But McGwire, beginning to be drawn to the idea of hitting every day instead of waiting four days to pitch, started rethinking his path.

"Finally, Rod decided he liked the three-run homer better than my pitching," McGwire said.

With both McGwire and Johnson working as pitchers in '83 (and McGwire doubling as a slugger, of course), the Trojans went 33-24-1 overall and 17-13 in the Pac-10. They failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament.  

"The thing I remember most is thinking that Shane Mack was going to be a better player than McGwire," longtime major league scout Gary Hughes, now with the Boston Red Sox, said with a chuckle of the outfielder who starred at UCLA and then played for the Minnesota Twins, among other teams. "And with Randy, he had a great arm, but he hadn't harnessed anything yet.

"The question was, would he be able to harness things?"

In 1984, Johnson went 5-3 with a 3.35 ERA and two saves in 26 games (12 starts). He fanned 73 and walked 52 in 78 innings.

"It took me four years in the minor leagues too," Johnson said. "And then it took me two or three years in the major leagues to really hit my stride. So [it was] just a long process.

"I had moments where I felt like I knew what I was doing, but it was different than the minor leagues. You need to be able to repeat your performances, and I wasn't at that stage yet. But there were definitely enjoyable moments at USC."

The Trojans finished 48-25 overall in '84 and went 18-12 in the Pac-10. This time they did qualify for the NCAA tournament, but they were bounced from the West Regional in Fresno, California, with two quick losses—10-6 to Cal State Fullerton and 15-12 to Fresno State.

RAY STUBBLEBINE/Associated Press/Associated Press

Next, Johnson was cut from Team USA.

"It just goes to show where I was at with my talent level because you're looking at the pitchers who were on that team and they were light-years ahead of me in my development and their skill level, at that time," he said.

"At that point, McGwire might have been one of the all-time best college players I ever saw," said Damon Oppenheimer, who, along with Del Rio, was a catcher on that '84 team and today is the vice president and director of amateur scouting for the New York Yankees. "And I saw some pretty good ones—Barry Bonds, Oddibe McDowell. I played summer ball against Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark when he was on Team USA.

"McGwire was a star."

Johnson?

"R.J. was still developing," Oppenheimer said. "He was obviously impressive because of his size. He had great velocity. You're talking 1984; I don't remember if we had radar-gun readings, but you could just tell by catching him that there were days when he was throwing a lot harder than anybody else."

In those days, Sid Akins was USC's Friday night starter, Brad Brink was the Saturday starter and Randy Robertson was the Sunday pitcher. Akins pitched on the '84 Olympic team. Brink was the Phillies' first-round (seventh overall) pick in the 1986 draft. And Robertson was the Padres' seventh-round pick in 1984.

Still, people were watching Johnson. And waiting.

"Randy was probably the tallest pitcher in baseball at the time," said Bob Fontaine Jr., who then was the Southern California supervisor of scouting for the Montreal Expos and watched those USC teams play many times. "He could throw hard, but he had command issues and had to grow into that body."

By '85, Fontaine and two other area Expos scouts, Cliff Ditto and Tom Hinkle (both now deceased), arranged their schedules so that at least one of them would see every Johnson start in person. In 26 games that spring, he started 19 times, going 6-9 with a 5.32 ERA, 99 strikeouts and 104 walks in 118.1 innings.

Associated Press/Associated Press

"The command issues, how long [into a game] could he keep his stuff?" Fontaine said of why he, Ditto or Hinkle babysat every start. "Anytime you have a hard-throwing pitcher, you want to stay on top of it because you worry about so many things."

Despite the wildness, the Expos made Johnson their second-round pick in '85.

Development, at the time, also had a double meaning for Johnson. Always interested in photography, he majored in photojournalism at USC and was a photographer for the Daily Trojan. John SooHoo, who today is the Dodgers' team photographer, was in charge of photographers at the USC newspaper and hired Johnson.

"I wouldn't have changed a thing," Johnson said. "Even knowing what I know now, I still would have went to college as opposed to signing with the Atlanta Braves. ... What I walked away with for three years going to USC, I wouldn't have been able to replace if I had signed with the Atlanta Braves.

"Now I fall back on a passion of photography. I learned a lot at the college level that I'm able to enjoy now."

He pursues photography today with the same zeal with which he once attacked pitching. He features his collection at rj51photos.com, including concert, auto racing and travel pictures. According to his website, Johnson has accompanied United Service Organizations on seven different tours, including visits to Iraq, Kuwait, Okinawa, Cuba, South Korea, Italy, Afghanistan, Africa and Germany.

McGwire hasn't spoken to Johnson since the Hall of Fame election results were announced in January, but they've exchanged messages through Tony La Russa, who was McGwire's manager in St. Louis and, as chief baseball officer for the Arizona Diamondbacks, sees Johnson in Phoenix.

"I've gotten a hello from him through Tony," McGwire said. "I don't have a phone number for him anymore. I'll pass a hello on to him through Tony. I know he's been at a couple games in the past year when we're in town."

In the majors, McGwire hit .225 against Johnson with three homers and six RBI in 49 plate appearances. One of those homers was a mammoth shot estimated by the Mariners to have traveled 538 feet in the Kingdome on June 24, 1997. Though the Athletics won 4-1, Johnson threw a complete game and struck out 19 Oakland hitters.

"I remember looking over at him from the dugout before he pitched to the guy behind me, and he tipped his hat to me," McGwire said. "That was pretty cool."

Like Johnson, McGwire looks back to his USC days with fondness. They were simpler times, uncomplicated yet by life.

"Neat times," McGwire said. "I've always cherished them."

Johnson too.

"Having an opportunity to play with the legendary Rod Dedeaux as my coach for the three years and just have very enjoyable moments, and to say that I went to a major university, especially USC with such a proud, rich tradition in all of their athletics and in the university itself," Johnson said of what he took from his time at USC. "I'm happy to be able to go back there on occasion and go watch and talk to the players on the baseball team."

When he does, and he looks out at a new generation of young kids trying to figure it all out, he dips into an impressive reservoir of experience and, yes, control. What the players see staring back at them is the last pitcher to win 300 games in the majors and the owner of five Cy Young Awards, second all-time to Roger Clemens' seven.

Time eventually teaches us that part of figuring it all out is misfiring a few times along the way. We all follow our own pathssome of us easier than othersand throwing strikes consistently always, always, is much more difficult than it appears.

Which is partly why, in another part of New York on Sunday, the old slugger surely will see glimpses of his longtime friend and one-time teammate on his biggest day from a distance. The Dodgers will be playing the Mets at Citi Field, and that will be as close to Cooperstown as McGwire will get—now or probably ever.

AMY SANCETTA/Associated Press

While Johnson received the third-highest voting percentage of any pitcher in history (97.27), McGwire, after admitting to and apologizing for taking steroids during his career, topped out at 23.5 percent of the Hall vote in 2007 and backslid to 10 percent in 2015.

Somewhere in the rearview mirror is 1984, Team USA and the slugger who made that club and the wild pitcher who didn't. Three decades later, McGwire sees nothing odd about their dramatic role reversal.

"Not at all," McGwire said, warmly and without hesitation. "It's well-deserved. It's historical, what he's done. The strikeouts. The Cy Youngs. The world championship (Diamondbacks 2001). The longevity, like Nolan Ryan.

"I couldn't be happier for him. You can't compare my career to what he's done. It's two different things. I have to deal with what I have to deal with. I've totally accepted what I have to deal with.

"I couldn't be happier for him, and for the Trojans."

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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