Big Unit a Cooperstown shoo-in as call from Hall looms
PHOENIX — When Jerry Colangelo brought Randy Johnson to the Diamondbacks in the second year of the club’s existence, he believed the most dominant pitcher of the age not only would change the course of franchise history but also would pay bottom-line dividends.
It was hard to argue with the logic that attendance would bump in the games Johnson started. Johnson already had an AL Cy Young Award, a no-hitter, a 20-victory season and a reputation as the game’s most intimidating presence.
For a then-record — but now pocket-change — $53.4 million four-year contract, the D-backs created an attachment with a pitcher whose fastball/slider combination made hitters wince and the improbable seem altogether likely. Johnson once recorded a swinging strike on a slider that hit a right-handed batter in his back foot.
Although attendance did not pop as much as expected, Johnson did, and there seems little doubt that he will be inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame Tuesday in his first year of eligibility after a career that overflowed with personal achievement and team success, much of it enjoyed during his time with the D-backs.
"He had god’s gift of a left arm," said Mike Paul, who was the Mariners’ pitching coach in Johnson’s first three seasons and later worked as an advance scout for the D-backs.
Johnson won consecutive NL Cy Young Awards in the first four of his eight seasons with Arizona. His D-backs resume also includes a perfect game at Atlanta, a 20-strikeout game, his 3,000th and 4,000th career strikeouts and a co-World Series MVP award that he shared with fellow Hall of Fame nominee Curt Schilling.
The legend of his 99-mph fastball grew when he struck an unsuspecting bird in a freak accident during a 2001 spring training game. The bird swooped across the field as Johnson was releasing the ball and was struck by the pitch, landing amid a sea of feathers.
Though Johnson was 35 when signing with Arizona, it was quickly evident he was in the prime of his career. He struck out 364 batters in 1999, posting 294 more strikeouts that walks, the second-highest differential in major-league history behind Sandy Koufax’s plus-311 season in 1965.
"Every time he took the mound was exciting — exciting for the game of baseball, exciting for our team and exciting for our city," said former teammate Luis Gonzalez, now a D-backs special assistant to president/CEO Derrick Hall.
"It was almost like going into a game knowing that you have a one-nothing lead because of the intimidation factor. Absolutely. Whenever he took the mound, you always felt like you had a great chance of winning that game because you knew he was going to give you everything he had."
Johnson, one of 24 300-game winners in MLB history, ranks second with 4,875 career strikeouts, trailing only Nolan Ryan. It was Ryan’s encouragement and advice that helped Johnson gain command of his overpowering stuff during his mid-to-late-20s while with Seattle, a team Johnson also led to the playoffs. Johnson averaged 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings during his career, the highest rate among starters in major-league history.
Johnson could even pass Ryan in one category. Ryan was elected with 98.79 percent of the vote in 1999, the second-largest percentage among position players or pitchers behind Tom Seaver (98.84 percent) in Hall of Fame history. Johnson has been named on all but one of the 140 ballots that 2015 voters chose to make public, according to research conducted by Ryan Thibs.
Johnson seems a good bet to surpass the record percentage for a left-hander currently held by Steve Carlton, who gathered 95.82 percent of the votes when he was elected in 1994. Tom Glavine received 91.94 percent of the 571 ballots received when he was up for the first time last year.
Gonzalez said Johnson’s eventual inclusion among baseball’s all-time greats was apparent to all who played with and against him.
"When guys are playing with him, they realize what a special breed the guy is," Gonzalez said. "You know when you face guys like (Greg) Maddux and Glavine and Smoltzie (John Smoltz) and guys like that. When I played with Ryne Sandberg in Chicago, you knew you were playing with a Hall of Fame guy. The numbers and the credentials that he put up, you knew he was going to be there sooner or later."
The only question seems to be what Johnson will wear at his induction. He and Ken Griffey were instrumental in reviving baseball in Seattle when the Mariners were trying to build a new stadium. He did his best work in Arizona, and won his only World Series here.
"He was an intimidating stature out on the field, and he thrived on that when he played," Gonzalez said. "He wanted the ball every fifth day. He took it and he was successful in striking guys out and making a living while he was doing it."