Mariners Insider

Big Unit really was alone at the top

Post by Larry Larue / The News Tribune on Jan. 6, 2010 at 7:26 am with 12 Comments »
January 6, 2010 9:17 am

Randy Johnson’s retirement got me wondering just when it was that he stopped caring if anyone liked him, and how one of the greatest left-hander pitchers in history could have played for six teams without making a friend.

Randy Johnson
Randy Johnson

Don’t misunderstand – every fifth day, the Big Unit was a man teammates loved to see on the mound. In between starts, he grated at managers, pitching coaches, players, trainers or anyone he happened to encounter.

When he arrived in Seattle from Montreal in ’89, he was a long, lanky young pitcher with a great arm, little confidence and no idea how to pitch effectively.

But he was funny, and fun. A merry prankster who wore a conehead in the Kingdome dugout, Johnson was talkative, inquisitive and, if anything, a little too sensitive.

Say something negative about his last start on talk radio and, if the Mariners were at home that day, he’d call the station.

When he retired Tuesday, he went into the next stage of his life with 303 career victories and few players who were sorry to see him go. What happened between ’89 and ’09?

From Mariners  to players with the Astros, Diamondbacks, Yankees and Giants, the men who worked with Johnson over a 22-year career tried to befriend the Unit and were rebuffed.

Some of the nicest men in the game - Jamie Moyer, Harold Reynolds, Bryan Price, Jay Buhner, Derek Jeter and Mike Blowers among them – wound up walking away from Johnson and shaking their heads.

“When he pitched for me I gave him the ball every fifth day and left it up to him if we were going to talk the other four days,” Lou Piniella said. “If he said hello, I’d say hello. If he didn’t, fine. Life’s too short …”

The stories were never top-of-the-page headlines and shouldn’t have been. Johnson would complain to writers on the road that his teammates didn’t score enough runs for him. In Arizona one year, some young players didn’t want to play behind him – he’d berate them, on the field, if they made a mistake.

If he was ever happy once he became a dominant pitcher, it never showed.  The year Nolan Ryan took time to work with him, Johnson spent all spring training talking about it.

By May, pitching well, he told an interviewer he was tired of answering questions about Ryan, hinting that the Hall of Famer was somehow taking credit for his work.

But in the ’98, Johnson tanked on the Seattle Mariners. From spring training on, he wanted to be traded and, in July, he was. In the months in between, there were team meetings, one-on-one talks with Piniella, sit downs between Johnson, Buhner, Ken Griffey Jr. and others.

The Mariners believed they could win the division that year, but not without their ace pitching like an ace. Johnson went 9-10 in 23 starts for Seattle, posting a 4.33 ERA. When Piniella finally told him if he pitched well he’d get traded, Johnson threw a pair of shutouts.

Dealt to Houston, Johnson made 11 starts – and went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA and helped the Astros get to the playoffs.

Unit, Unit, Unit.

Without question, Johnson is a Hall of Fame pitcher. Sadly, he was never as great a teammate or friend, and perhaps he never wanted to be.

I will remember the no-hitter and the early laughs, the talks about photography and rock music and our fathers, who were both policemen. I wish that Johnson had stayed in the game.

He didn’t, and Johnson and I haven’t spoken in more than 10 years. In another 10 years, most everyone he ever played with or for will be able to say the same thing.

Now, a few links:

  • Jarrod Washburn has waited through a slow market without getting much interest, but the Minnesota Twins have now made him an offer.
  • Baseball America is out with it’s Top 20 minor league prospects, and the Mariners have No. 17 in Dustin Ackley, who gets compared to Johnny Damon.
  • The Texas Rangers are looking for a right-handed designated hitter and are courting Vladimir Guerrero. Vlad may not be the hitter he once was, but playing 81 games in Arlington? Yikes.
  • Ageless wonder Jamie Moyer may finally be showing his age – he’s 47 – in Philadelphia. He’ll undergo knee surgery and likely won’t be ready for opening day.
  • A day after signing catcher Miguel Olivo to a one-year contract, the Colorado Rockies gave catcher Chris Iannetta a three-year extension. Expect Olivo to be unhappy from opening day on when he isn’t the starter.
  • For those who remember Hall of Fame candidate Roberto Alomar for his ’96 spitting on umpire John Hirschbeck, consider this: “If I could vote, I would vote for him,” Hirschbeck told Peter Schmuck. “I would love to see him go in.”
  • When Angels broadcaster Rory Markas died this week, it left the team mourning – and facing an awkward situation. It’s now considering rehiring Steve Physioc, who they let go to promote Markas.
  • The Indians need right-handed hitting and signed Austin Kearns and Shelley Duncan to minor league deals and invited both to spring training. Paul Hoynes says Cleveland is dumpster diving.
Leave a comment Comments → 12
  1. “But in the ’98, Johnson tanked on the Seattle Mariners. From spring training on, he wanted to be traded and, in July, he was.” – I wonder if this had anything to do with the M’s brass announcing that Randy would not be offered an extension or resigned at the end of the year. So not only did they have a disgruntled ace, they had shown their hand to every team in baseball. Oh, I forgot, they made the announcement on the same day Griffey was announced MVP for the ’97 season just to give the fans one more kick in the groin. Way to go Mariners, you’ve always been a class act.

  2. Larry Larue says:

    pas – that’s not quite how it went. the mariners made numerous offers to rj, who made it clear he wanted to pitch elsewhere – and said arizona was his preference. regardless, once the season began, he simply wasn’t there in far too many of his starts – games that might have changed the year for his teammates.

  3. wabubba67 says:

    Pasley,

    That was quite a lesson in revisionist history. Watch much FOX news?

  4. footballscaa says:

    Randy did compete at the highest level. Higher than most major leaguers ever could. He got money, he got sensitive, he got mad. However, it was an honor to go to the Kingdome or Safeco to watch him pitch. I knew it even then. We all did.

  5. Larry, I would have wanted to pitch elsewhere too if I had put my career on the line by pitching out of the pen on 1 day’s rest in ’95 to get the team to the ALCS, only to be rewarded by watching the team send Tito Martinez and Jeff Nelson to the team I beat in an effort to dump salary. Is that quite right? Enlighten me.

  6. wabubba67 says:

    Pasley,

    First, it’s Tino, not Tito Martinez.

    Second, the trade to the Yankees turned out to be lopsided but, at the time, was considered to be somewhat even in terms of talent. To be clear, I was not a proponent of the trade at the time as I believed that Martinez was finally becoming a truly productive player offensively. However, prior to 1995, he really had not fulfilled his potential. The Mariners dealt Martinez to the Yankees along with Jeff Nelson and Jim Mecir in order to get what were then considered to be the gems of the Yankees organization: a young, defensive 3B that could hit for power in Russ Davis and a young LH starting pitcher (you always pay a premium for those in a trade) in Sterling Hitchcock. Both turned out to be head cases to varying extents, while Nelson soon solidified his role as one of the best set up RH relievers in baseball and Martinez proved that 1995 was just the first in a remarkable run of highly productive seasons.

    Third, I have no problem with Johnson wanting to leave the Mariners during the 1997 season. I only have a problem with Johnson not acting professionally in the starts leading up to his trade. It was obvious to those watching at the time…Larry’s stories only confirm what my friends and I were saying.

    Fourth, Johnson pitched on a day’s rest against the Yankees in the ALDS because he wanted to. Certainly, he was at least cognizant enough to know that relationships have a tendency to change over time and that baseball is a business. A player’s role, as is the role for most adults in our society, is to act professionally regardless. He failed to do that in during the 1997 season after he had turned down several offers by the Mariners to sign another contract.

    Enlightened yet?

  7. Bubba,

    First, thank you for the spell check. I bet that really felt good to type.

    Second, clearly the M’s didn’t make an adequate offer to entice Randy to stay. As I’m sure you know, contracts are not merely quantitative since they impact qualitative areas of an athlete’s life, such as winning in the postseason. Cumulative effects of poor management end up being major factors in an athlete’s decision to stay with a team. You may remember that fans were calling for David Cone in ’95, but instead received Andy Benes because the Mariners were “unable” to get a deal done for Cone. Would we have beat Cleveland with Cone? Maybe. Would Randy have wanted to stay if the M’s had advanced to face the Braves in the World Series? Maybe. But we’ll never know due to the cause and effect of sports. I think it’s safe to say that getting Cone wouldn’t have hurt our chances of keeping Randy and also safe to say trading Martinez and Nelson hurt our chances by making the M’s a less competitive club.

    Third, I doubt the “several” offers from the M’s were equivalent to the quantum provided by Arizona, which as it turned out was a bargain for the team to spend $53M on 4 Cy Young Awards and a World Series win.

    Fourth, it was disappointing at the time to see the Mariners slowly dissected through bad management and it’s more disappointing to see that there are still M’s fans that continue to condone those decisions.

    To answer your question, no, unfortunately not. Just disappointed and disheartened to see Randy’s legacy come to this.

  8. It’s be interesting to see if RJ chooses to go into the hall as a Diamondback, Yankee or Mariner. I’m hoping for Seattle & guessing Az.

  9. footballscaa says:

    Heh. I’m glad I’m not the only one sparing on this site.

  10. footballscaa says:

    Anyone notice, the “smart guys” paragragh.

  11. Moo, I heard that players don’t get to choose their HoF caps anymore, that after the Boggs/Rays debacle the commish office now chooses for the players. Boggs essentially sold his “cap rights” to the Rays. Larry, can you confirm?

    My guess is that if RJ was choosing, he’d go as a D-back. Most of his legacy is there.

  12. Larry Larue says:

    squid – you’re exactly right. the HOF now chooses the cap players are shown in on their plaque.

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