By the time the Giants' clubhouse opened up to reporters-bloggers, the Big Unit had made a quick escape as is custom for players who don't start or appear in spring training games. Only Johnson's uniform, cap and size-13 cleats — orange and black with custom 51s sewn on the heels — were left behind in his locker.
Fortunately, though, it appears that I might have another chance to talk with Johnson next year, if a friendly conversation doesn't come to pass on this 'Duk in The Desert trip.
Or maybe the year after that
Or maybe the year after that.
Johnson, 45, told Steve Kelley in Monday's editions of the Seattle Times that he could easily see himself pitching until he's 50 years old. After missing most of 2007 due to back surgeries, Johnson said he feels like his old self and doesn't plan on stopping the minute he clinches win No. 300. (Johnson will enter the '09 season with 295 career wins.)
From the Seattle Times:
"Who's to say that I can't pitch just because I'm 50 years old?" he asked. "If I'm 48 years old and I'm still throwing 93 [mph] and still winning 10 or 12 games and still having fun and still being competitive, why would age matter? I'll retire when I feel like the fire had gone out of my belly. But I still have that fire and that will to compete. That's why I went through those back surgeries.
"I'm not ruling out anything. I'm just very grateful that I'm able to pitch right now. I can't fool you and say I still throw 98. I don't. I'm not in denial. But I know how to pitch. I still have the mound presence and the desire to go out there and compete. And I still have that fear of failure."
The Giants signed Johnson to a one-year, $8 million deal in the offseason after the D'backs didn't express much interest in keeping their old World Series hero around. Johnson says he's enjoyed his time with San Francisco so far, tutoring players half his age in the Giants' minor league camp while proving that he still has it on the mound. Earlier this month, Johnson struck out seven in three innings when facing his old Arizona teammates.
I should also mention that Johnson had a pretty good 2008, too, holding a 2.41 ERA in games pitched after the All-Star break.
Though I'm skeptical of anyone with two back surgeries lasting another five big league seasons, maybe Johnson CAN become only the fourth player to reach the magic 5-0. He certainly has the pitching know-how and, most important, the desire to keep going.
So here's hoping he goes out on his own terms and retires at the age HE wants. Not everyone is lucky enough to get that chance, but maybe Johnson can prove just as elusive to Father Time as he did after Monday's game.
UPDATE: YSB bloglord Jamie Mottram had a crazy thought. Coming into the '09 season, the Big Unit is second on MLB's career strikeouts list with 4,789 Ks. That puts him a sizable 925 punchouts behind Nolan Ryan's seemingly untoppable record of 5,714 ... but maybe Johnson is thinking that if he can average 180 Ks for the next five seasons — and even he would admit that's a bigger 'if' than the Grand Canyon — he'd be in the neighborhood of passing Ryan?