Big Unit has big plans for D-backs young pitchers
PHOENIX — While with Montreal, Randy Johnson had such frustrating stretches in minor-league stops like Jamestown and West Palm Beach he thought about quitting baseball. Expos executive Jim Fanning once sat him down and asked a simple question.
"What’s going on, Randy?"
Johnson’s metamorphosis from raw prospect to his current self — a 22-year major leaguer, a 303-game winner and a member of the newest Hall of Fame class — gives him a unique frame of reference, and one he believes can be best utilized working with the Diamondbacks’ younger pitchers in his new role as special assistant in the organization’s front office.
"I can sit down with a young kid who might be struggling and say, ‘I was in the same boat when I was in A ball,’" Johnson said last week. "You have to fight through it. I think those kids at the minor league level can be more receptive to what I have to say than someone up at the major league level, possibly. I would like to feel that I can benefit the minor league kids in this organization more."
The D-backs have a group of highly regarded pitchers in their system, including former first-round draft picks Archie Bradley, Braden Shipley and Aaron Blair, all of whom could open the season in the rotation at Double-A Mobile. And it would be hard to imagine left-handers such as Andrew Chafin and newly acquired Robbie Ray couldn’t benefit from Johnson’s lessons.
Even, or especially, if any has the natural doubts that can occur to even the most positive during the learning process.
"There were a lot of times where I was planning on quitting the game," Johnson said. "And doing what, I don’t know, but it wasn’t going to be playing baseball, because it was so frustrating for me.
"I was a really bad pitcher growing up. I was inconsistent. Being almost seven-feet tall … you’re not meant to be a pitcher. My limbs are too long, and the thing about being a pitcher is, you need to have a consistent release point. Well, it is pretty hard when you are all arms and legs. That took me a long time to overcome. I fought myself a lot.
Johnson won the fight, and he sees himself as a resource. Shipley, the D-backs’ first-round pick in 2013 out of Nevada, said he would feel "spoiled" by having Johnson around.
"Anybody who played the game would tell you it is one of those games where you are continuously learning every day," Shipley, 23 next month, said. "Having a guy like Randy Johnson, who played so many years and has that much insight and was very successful at it and went through the ups and the downs that baseball has … the knowledge that he could give to any of us is very beneficial.
"Being in pro ball for couple of years now, it’s tough. It’s a grind. You have to battle. Being able to see a guy like him. Everybody knows Randy for being that tough guy, but he learned that. He got that on his own. He wasn’t given that. He had to learn that mental toughness, and that’s what he did. A guy like that, you want to learn from that and push yourself to be at that top level."
The D-backs talked for years with Johnson and agent Alan Nero about joining the organization, and after the Hall of Fame vote the sides agreed the time was right.
Hall, who grew up in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization, was glad to add Johnson to a core of returnees that already includes special assistants Luis Gnzalez and J.J. Putz.
"All my years with the Dodgers, I saw how important it was to have all those legendary figures around," Hall said. "The Yankees had it. With us not having as rich a history, it is nice to have these pieces start to come in and have an influence on our young players and to show them what it takes to get to this level."
Part of Johnson’s approach will be tough love-ish.
"The window of opportunity … and this is something I will tell the young kids and I’ll look them straight in the eye … there is no guarantee you will play 22 years," Johnson said. "There is no guarantee you will play five years. So why would you want to put off til then what you can do now?"
Five years after throwing his last pitch, Johnson said his next goal is to make a difference.
"And if it means being at the ball park trying to have an impact on somebody … whether it is conversation or showing them something physically," Johnson said. "Showing them mechanics. The bottom line is just having an impact."