SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The best pitcher in Diamondbacks history made his first visit to Salt River Fields on Monday, and he came bearing gifts.
Randy Johnson was in camp at the D-backs’ invitation, and they hope he will make it a regular occurrence.
Johnson looked comfortable and at home. He talked to manager Kirk Gibson early Monday, then spoke to several D-backs pitchers as he watched morning drills. A nod here. A word of advice there. He had a captive audience.
“A guy like that comes around, you stop what you are doing and listen,” Trevor Cahill said.
It is not the 99 mph fastball and swing-and-miss, back-foot slider that the D-backs are hoping to capture from Johnson, who should be a first ballot Hall of Famer when he becomes eligible in 2015.
No, the D-backs would like to mine the drive and resolve that accompanied Johnson’s immense talent. He once pitched a complete game in San Diego on a day in which he was so sick that he was unable to warm up before the game. That’s the lesson.
“He has a great mind beyond the ability. He’s got great (thoughts),” Gibson said.
“A lot of what inhibits you is you. How do you get beyond that? It’s a mindset. We had a conversation about that. We talked a lot about pitching in general. In today’s game, maybe you have to watch that you don’t get too numbers driven. He’s certainly a guy who’s been less numbers driven.”
Johnson worked through two back surgeries. He pitched without cartilage in either knee, at one time injecting a synthetic substitute to help with the pain. He retired after reaching 300 victories in his one season in San Francisco in 2009 because of a rotator cuff that remains in need of surgery.
Those are the lessons.
“He sucked it up many days when maybe many haven’t,” Gibson said.
“Obviously he was a very strong-minded guy. He pushed himself well beyond the limits of most. He was different than most (because of his ability), let’s face it. But the message is, we can all expand our limits.”
Johnson told a story outside a practice field Monday, saying he was determined to work just as hard to prepare for the 2002 season as he did the year before, when he won a third straight NL Cy Young and shared the World Series co-MVP award with Curt Schilling.
Complacency, even from the mountain top, was not an option. It led to his best season in 2002, when he had a career-high 24 victories and won the pitchers’ triple crown by leading the league in wins, ERA (2.32) and strikeouts (334).
“How do you know when your best season will come?” Johnson said.
“You look back after it is all over, and then you can tell.”
D-backs president/CEO Derrick Hall and Gibson were instrumental in reaching out to Johnson over the winter, and they will give him the run of the camp if he chooses. The clubhouse door is open, as is general manager Kevin Towers’. The welcome mat will extend all season for a player whose number “51” will hang on the wall at Chase Field when Johnson decides the timing is right.
Like a lot of left-handers, Tony Sipp grew up following Johnson, even mimicking his motion. He and Johnson shared a moment.
“It was cool talking to him, period,” Sipp said. “When he left, you were in awe and wish you would have said more. I think I’ll have to write some more stuff for next time.”
Johnson has spent the years since retirement with his family and his avocation, photography, along with charitable and public service ventures. He recently returned from his third USO tour to the Middle East, where he visited with troops and took photos in Bahrain and Djibouti. It is a mission that he looks forward to every year. He also has made stops in Afghanistan and Iraq, including at Camp Victory, near the Baghdad airport and a primary U.S. outpost until it was handed back to the Iraqis in 2011.
He takes great pride in that work, just as he does in passing along the knowledge he picked up in 22 years of pro ball. Johnson remembers Nolan Ryan helping with his development, and conversations with bygone left-handers such as Warren Spahn, and he is ready to pass the torch.
“I sense he has a need to want to give back right now because of all the guys who gave to him,” Gibson said.
In no small part, Johnson became somewhat of a mentor-in-chief in his one season in San Francisco. Matt Cain, who had had trouble getting through the sixth and seventh innings in his first few seasons, credited Johnson with spurring him forward. Cain had 14 victories in 2009, then his career high, and he since has gone on to 13, 12 and 16 wins and two World Series rings. Last year, he joined Johnson as one of 21 in modern major league history with a perfect game.
Johnson mentioned to Cahill the importance of throwing strikes, using himself as an example.
Johnson led the American League in walks for three straight years beginning in 1990 before gaining the command that helped him to five 300-strikeout seasons.
“He always tried to find a way to get better,” Cahill said.