Randy Johnson announced his retirement last week, marking the end of the career of one my favorite pitchers to play against. After 22 MLB seasons and 303 victories, the 6’10” fireballing lefty decided he didn’t have anything left to prove, and that it was time to start his time clock towards his election to the Hall of Fame.
The announcement was bitter sweet for me. I’ve been watching Johnson pitch since 1983 when he was a freshman at USC. As a local high school kid I used to go out to Dedaux field to watch great baseball, and dream about possibly playing collegiate baseball myself. Little did I know that I would play against Johnson just 2 years later in the Florida State League (A ball), after he was drafted by the Expos, and I by the Phillies.
At that time he was far more enigmatic than dominating. One game he would throw 97 MPH, and the next 87. Sometimes his stuff would change that dramatically from inning to inning. He was prone to control problems both of his pitches and himself, once reportedly having both his hands in casts when we cam to town because of punching a wall with his fist after having the other one previously broken by a comebacker moments earlier. By the time we were squaring off in AAA he was starting to establish himself as an intimidating presence on the mound, though still inconsistent and creating lots of questions about his dedication and mental toughness.
Those attributes carried over to the big leagues as he immediately had a reputation as a guy who could throw hard, and be unhittable one moment, then lose the strike zone and walk the bases loaded the next. This pattern continued until August of 1992 when he had a talk with fireballing legend Nolan Ryan. They reportedly talked about setting up hitters, staying aggressive, and cutting down on his walks. He did all three of those things, and in the first 20 games after that chat he went 11-5 with a 2.79 ERA, averaged almost 11 K’s per game and cut his walks in half. His new found command and confidence carried through the 2003 season and he posted a 19-8 record, 3.24 ERRZ with a league leading 308 K’s, and career low 99 BB’s, coming in 2nd in the A.L. Cy Young voting. There was no looking back.
Over the next 10 years he was the most dominating and intimidating lefty in the big leagues. I remember sitting on the bench watching in awe, as he would cut through our lineups like a hot knife through butter. Right hand hitters were just as defenseless as left handers, and I NEVER heard a guy complain when the skipper would give one of our left hand hitting starters a day off on his scheduled day to pitch against us. He made it look easy. All the control issues had been harnessed, and the whispers about lacking mental toughness and focus were silenced.
He was by far the most intimidating left-handed pitcher I ever had the pleasure to witness pitch. As an opponent I was left in awe watching him dominate our hitters live, and I would stop whatever I was doing to watch him on TV when not playing against hm.
So I am sad to see his career end, but glad to see it happen on his terms, and with out a heavy cloud of doubt and suspicion surrounding him. Only time will tell, and we may never know, if he was tainted by the steroid era at all. For now, the Big Unit retires with 5 Cy Young Awards, the most strikeouts ever recorded for a left hander and the second most recorded by any pitcher (just behind his mentor Nolan Ryan), over 300 victories, and a pending first ballot invitation to join the immortals of the game.
Thanks, Randy, for reigniting within me that pure joy of watching baseball, and for being the type of player that was so good that people stopped what they were doing to watch you perform your craft every time you took the field. Congratulations on an amazing career.