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.
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.