Tale of the tape: Randy Johnson pitch brings ‘explosion of feathers’

On Saturday night — the D-backs will retire Randy Johnson’s No. 51 jersey — and at some point during the festivities, Randy will speak. I have no earthly idea what he will talk about —but I can bet what he won’t talk about: March 24th, 2001.

The Bird Game.

For whatever reason (mostly the pitcher’s reluctance to discuss it), there’s a dearth of stories about the pitch that infamously killed a dove during a D-backs-Giants spring training game.  There’s Randy’s non-quote after the game, "I didn’t find it all that funny."  There’s a handful of late night TV appearances (including one on David Letterman’s show after his Hall of Fame selection) — but for a story that’s so famous, it remains one of the most untold stories in D-backs lore.

So we went right to the source: The actual tape and the man who recorded it.

Jim Currigan is the D-backs baseball operations video coordinator. He helps maintain a video library of the D-backs’ many minor league affiliates, Dominican leagues and potential draft prospects. There are multiple angles of every pitch thrown, no matter the level. But in Spring 2001, the system was much more archaic.

Currigan would drag his Hi-8 video camera out to center field and record each player’s at-bat (or pitching appearance) on each player’s respective video tape. During the bird game, Johnson was pitching late into the game. 

"There’s not an ounce of shade to be found in my little perch, and it’s the seventh inning and to be honest, I’m not really paying that close attention to the game other than I know it’s a little contentious for a spring training game," said Currigan. Edwards Guzman had just admired a long flyball (that ended up falling short of the warning track). In stepped the Giants’ Calvin Murray. 

"All I could tell was that something happened near home plate because I’m not looking through the viewfinder and it was weird," Currigan said. "It was like the pitch exploded or something."

By the time the game was over, people were waiting for Currigan at his office. He had no idea he had recorded one of the Internet’s earliest viral videos.

"Before I even got back to my office I’m rolling my gear in from center field and I get to that little garage area where the clubhouse attendants are and the equipment room is and Richard Saenz is the first guy to meet me. He’s standing on the sidewalk and he says, ‘Please tell me you got that! Please tell me you got that!’ I kind of had forgotten what he was referring to because it’s a little while later and I’m just happy the game is over.  I asked him, ‘Got what?’ and he said ‘Randy killing the bird,’ so I said ‘Oh, that’s what that was!’ By the time I got to my office 20 seconds later, there was Mike Swanson and handful of other people wanting to see it."

Mike Swanson, the team’s original P.R. director, says because of Randy’s fame, he knew this video had national interest. He had it immediately sent to the Tucson stations (under the promise they send it to Phoenix). Currigan vividly remembers making a dub (TV-speak for a copy) for ABC World News with Peter Jennings. 

If this incident happened today — it would have been worldwide within minutes, with multiple camera angles in HD. Smartphones. But in 2001, in a world without YouTube, Jim’s video is the only record: The Zapruder film of baseball history.

"I see it all the time on countdown-list TV shows, Top 20 Incidents," said Currigan.

"It’s on YouTube.  People will text me all the time, ‘Your R.J. and the bird videos is on the Chive today!’ I remember joking with (Mike Swanson) when it happened, ‘Is there any chance I can make a little money out of this?’

"He said, ‘No, that pretty much belongs to Major League Baseball and the Diamondbacks, so you need to give it to whoever wants it.’"

152 frames of video. That’s all that exists of the most infamous moment in D-backs history. The original tape sits on Currigan’s shelf as a souvenir.

"It is very cool to be associated with it, no doubt," said Currigan.

Somewhere, a 6-foot-10 Hall of Fame pitcher disagrees.

Notes

— The bird pitch is definitely Currigan’s most famous recording. Here’s another one that went viral.

— Currigan made countless VHS copies of the video — including several for Randy. Any news outlets requested a copy received a low-quality VHS version. The version that will air in the D-backs Live! pre-game show on Saturday night is the first digital copy of the original master ever aired on TV.

Josh Kelman is a producer for FOX Sports Arizona. Follow him on Twitter.