Big Unit returns to be honored by Mariners
Randy Johnson says no one other than his wife truly understands how special Seattle is to him. It's where he became the most feared left-handed pitcher in baseball and helped save the franchise from moving with the Mariners' stirring run to the playoffs in 1995.
But his departure in 1998, when Johnson was distracted by a contract dispute and claims he was purposely tanking his season, still bothers him even as he returns to Seattle this weekend to be inducted into the team's Hall of Fame, along with former catcher Dan Wilson.
''The one thing that bothered me when I Ieft here was when people thought that I wasn't trying my hardest,'' Johnson said. ''That as an athlete that bothered me a lot. I'll be the first to say I didn't play well, I didn't pitch well. Did it distract me? Absolutely.''
Johnson spoke Friday afternoon following a luncheon on the turf at Safeco Field where he and Wilson will be honored before Saturday's game against Kansas City. Johnson never played at Safeco Field in a Mariners uniform but was largely responsible for the 1995 season that ultimately was the catalyst for the team staying in the Pacific Northwest and one of the finest stadiums in baseball being constructed.
It's the departure from Seattle that still eats at Johnson, especially when fans occasional bring up the 1998 season. Johnson was in the final year of his contract with Seattle and admits he was distracted by the talks surrounding a new deal that dragged on through the season. Johnson went 9-10 with a 4.48 ERA with Seattle before being traded to Houston, where he closed the season 10-1.
''I also wanted to stay here, and that needs to be cleared up, too. I never wanted to leave,'' Johnson said. ''I didn't mean to get off on that, and hopefully no one will even write about that, because today and tomorrow are special days. But it bothered me when I left here. Seattle means so much to me. It really does.''
While most of his individual and team success came after Johnson left the Mariners, it was in Seattle that he transformed from a lanky project with a cannon arm into a left-hander no one wanted to face.
''My time here was a lot like the Seattle weather,'' Johnson said. ''When you woke up in the morning if it was a nice day that was the day I struck out 15. If you woke up and it was raining outside that was the day I was walking seven and I couldn't get out of the third inning. All anyone wants is some consistency. You want to see the sun every once in a while here in Seattle and all I was ever searching for was consistency and being competitive and it took time.''
Johnson, who is second in baseball history with 4,875 strikeouts, pitched for the Mariners from 1989-1998, compiling a 130-74 record. He won the Cy Young Award in 1995 when he went 18-2 with a 2.48 ERA, although arguably his finest season was 1997 when he won 20 games and had an ERA of 2.28.
He threw the first no-hitter in Mariners history in 1991, but there are two moments of the Seattle chapter in his career that stick out: the 1993 All-Star game and 1995 AL Division Series.
In 1993 Johnson struck out John Kruk during the All-Star game in Baltimore, but only after firing a fastball over the head of the Phillies slugger. That strikeout of Kruk, along with Johnson killing a bird with a pitch during a spring training game, remain the lighter moments of his career.
But more serious was Johnson's performance in the 1995 ALDS against the New York Yankees. Johnson threw seven innings and struck out 10 in a Game 3 win that avoided elimination for the Mariners. He then came back with nearly zero rest and threw three innings of relief and got the victory in the decisive Game 5.
''I have too many memories here and that's why Seattle has always been near and dear to me,'' Johnson said.