10 years later, Johnson much more than ‘Mr. Perfect’
PHOENIX — On the 10th anniversary of his perfect game Sunday, Randy Johnson’s eyes welled. It had nothing to do with baseball.
While photography and family life have occupied most of Johnson’s time since his retirement from baseball in 2009, he has found profound satisfaction in visiting with troops on his five USO tours. He made his first trip in 2010, when he asked to go to Kuwait and Iraq. He also has met troops in Bahrain and, most recently, Guantanamo Bay, where detainees are being held.
"I’m on the flight line with 19-year old kids watching armed guards guarding drones," Johnson said of his visit to Cuba.
His most memorable stops have come at Ramstein Air Force Base in far western Germany. Soldiers wounded in action are routed through Ramstein before arriving in the United States.
"I get goosebumps just thinking about that, because I’m living my dream while these young kids … you have to see this stuff, witness this stuff," Johnson said, his eyes growing damp.
"Most of us are in a bubble over here. When you are seeing young men and women who have everything to live for and are willing to put it on the line for us over there, I don’t know what to tell them. Just God bless you for the willingness to do what you do for me and my family and the rest of the Americans.
"A lot of it comes full circle. These soldiers were little kids when they were watching you play. You tell them what it means for them to be there. It’s truly heartfelt. It spills out of you."
Johnson accompanied a Diamondbacks party on a solemn visit to the site of the World Trade Center rubble during the 2001 World Series, and he understands that many of the soldiers he meets are deployed because of the events of 2001.
"And most of them want to get back," Johnson said. "They want to get back with their troops.
"That to me has been the most impactful thing, the most meaningful thing, that I have done in my life. To actually be that close and meet … I have a daughter that is 19. These kids are not much older than her."
Johnson spoke after throwing out the ceremonial first pitch Sunday on the 10th anniversary of his perfect game against the Braves in Atlanta. He was greeted with a standing ovation by the Chase Field crowd, and he received a piece of art in which he and catcher Robby Hammock were depicted along with nine baseballs to correspond to his nine flawless innings. Hammock caught the first pitch Sunday.
That to me has been the most impactful thing, the most meaningful thing, that I have done in my life.
Randy Johnson on visiting troops as part of USO tours
Johnson still stalks perfection through his photography, which has taken him to auto races and far-away lands.
He has trekked to Rwanda, where a 600-pound silverback gorilla can be as close as 60 feet, 6 inches away. His most recent photo safari was to Okavango Delta in Botswana, with a leopard one on side, a pack of wild dogs on the other and a meal right in between.
Let him tell it.
"I’m in a jeep in an open dirt area, and a pack of wild dogs, who are like piranha on four legs, scared off a cheetah that had just killed a gazelle," Johnson said, relaying a report his party was given via radio.
"By the time we got to it, there was nothing left. It was shredded. Just one dog. We could see the cheetah between the two. I’m right in front, snapping pictures, thinking this cheetah is going to go attack this wild dog. He looks up, sees the cheetah and takes off. The cheetah takes the (gazelle) carcass right in front of me. And he goes up in a tree and it starts eating this stuff. Just amazing.
"Seeing literally National Geographic moments developing in front of me."