Big Unit looks to be shoo-in for Hall of Fame in Tuesday announcement
At 6-foot-10, Randy Johnson stood on the mound and looked down on batters, an intimidating presence before he even threw the ball.
And when he let it fly, his talent matched his imposing stature.
With a menacing fastball and devastating slider, The Big Unit had a career that rivaled any other left-handed pitcher who played the game. There is a long list of statistics to back that up, and he seems a shoo-in as a first-ballot selection when the new Hall of Fame class is announced Tuesday.
His best seasons came with the Arizona Diamondbacks, where he won four consecutive Cy Young Awards — he had a total of five — and his only World Series championship. Every start was a display of searing intensity.
”We knew that every fifth day we were going to get one of the most competitive efforts in the history of the game,” said Bob Brenly, his manager for most of his time in Arizona. ”He pitched every game like it was the most important of his life.”
Since his retirement in 2009, Johnson has mostly detached himself from baseball, concentrating on his love of photography, traveling the world, shooting pictures of his many rock musician friends, meeting with soldiers on USO tours to Kuwait, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay.
Johnson pitched 22 seasons with Montreal, Seattle, Houston, Arizona, the New York Yankees and San Francisco, compiling a 303-166 career record.
He led his league in strikeouts nine times, third most in baseball history behind Walter Johnson and Nolan Ryan. His average of 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings ranks first among all pitchers.
Johnson had six seasons of at least 300 strikeouts, tied with Ryan for the most in MLB history.
A hard-throwing but extremely wild pitcher as a youngster at USC and in his early professional years, Johnson worked with Ryan and pitching coach Tom House in 1992 to fix his mechanics. And he developed remarkable control.
”He’s out of the mold physically when it comes to a major-league pitcher,” Brenly said. ”For him to go from where he was at the beginning of his career in Montreal when he was just a wild, hard thrower to where he finished his career — this guy would regularly strike out 300 more guys than he walked in a season.”
That’s a slight exaggeration, although Johnson did accomplish it once. In 2001, he fanned a career-high 372 and walked 71. It was the greatest season in Johnson’s career, largely because of the way it ended.
In the seventh game of a World Series considered by many to be one of the best ever played, with the New York Yankees leading 2-1, Johnson jogged down to the bullpen to thunderous cheers from the home crowd. When he emerged from the bullpen to pitch with two outs in the eighth inning, the reaction was even louder.
”For all the great moments there were in that World Series,” Brenly said, ”people continuously tell me that when Randy ran down to the bullpen, then when the door opened and he came out of it, that was the seminal moment in that World Series.”
Johnson retired all four batters he faced, then Arizona scored twice off Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth to win it all in just the franchise’s fourth season. Johnson was 3-0 in the series and earned co-MVP with Curt Schilling.
A lot of left-handed hitters on opposing teams took the day off when Johnson pitched. The rest of the lineup knew they were in for a challenge.
”It’s almost like you’re going into a game with a 1-0 lead because of the psychological advantage he gave to the team,” teammate Luis Gonzalez said. ”… He thrived on intimidating other teams.”
Johnson talked about his approach to baseball in an interview with reporters when he appeared at Chase Field last May for the commemoration of the 10th anniversary of his perfect game.
”I did what worked for me,” he said. ”Doesn’t mean it was the right way — it just worked for me. Whether it was working out the way I worked out, my regimen, my offseason training, my demeanor on game day, my demeanor working up to game day, it worked for me.”
In 2001, he became the third pitcher to strike out 20 in nine innings in a 4-3, 11-inning victory over Cincinnati. In 2002 he won the pitching version of the triple crown, leading the National League in wins, strikeouts and ERA.
And in 2004, at the age of 40, he became the oldest person to throw a perfect game, a performance against Atlanta that still can be viewed on YouTube.
Johnson has said he’s not the same intense person he was back then. He stepped away from baseball for a long time, enjoying the easing of the internal pressure he always put on himself.
”I didn’t have any problems retiring because I felt like I did what I wanted to do,” he said in May. ”I deserved to walk away.”