Big Unit retires, leaves big legacy
Randy Johnson(notes) has been like this for a little while now, kind of sappy and dopey and soft, like an old man afraid to say goodbye, because this time it might be goodbye for good, and so if he keeps talking, they couldn’t possibly turn out the lights and pull the door shut.
If he wasn’t the best left-hander in history, he could at least get his gangly arms completely around the other candidates in a small group hug. He had 303 wins. He had five Cy Young Awards, a no-hitter and a perfect game. Only Nolan Ryan had more strikeouts. You get the sense, however, that it did not come without cost for Johnson, who snarled at batters and snapped at reporters and stared straight through many teammates, which made him a little hard to like unless he had the ball in his hand and you happened to be wearing the same uniform color.
Randy Johnson’s career snapshot (1988-2009):
|Cy Young||5 times|
|Perfect game||May 18, 2004
|No-hitter||June 2, 1990
*With Curt Schilling
Source: MLB, baseball-reference.com
He retired Tuesday afternoon and sweetly prattled on about this and that, helping teammates and meeting Warren Spahn and working so hard for all those seasons. Most of those two decades he spent mowing down the best hitters in the world, some of them so laced with steroids they squished when they walked, but he had his fastball and his slider and all that attitude, and he kept coming back from back and knee and shoulder surgeries to snarl and snap and win.
Over 45 minutes into a conference call Tuesday night originally (and innocently) scheduled to stomp all over Wednesday’s Hall of Fame announcement, Johnson snuck up on ways to say goodbye, and to say he didn’t always mean it, and to say he really, really appreciated his time in the game. Even, you know, those times when it looked like he wished he could have been anywhere else.
And then also to say he wouldn’t – and couldn’t – have done it any other way. Not when he started out with legs and arms and head going in so many directions that he was lucky when the ball went in the right direction. Not when he lost his father and brother so young, making him so angry. Not after all those years spent getting to the next start, and the next one, and the one after that, trying to hold his body and mind together long enough to arrive on the mound at the same time.
The thing about Randy Johnson is he never made it look easy. Or fun. But it often looked special, and it always looked willful. He watched parts of the last World Series, when he was only weeks into what he must have known was his retirement. He listened to the debates about Yankees’ and Phillies’ starters pitching on three days’ rest, and who could and who couldn’t, and why. He thought about the 2001 World Series, the one that got him his ring, when the Arizona Diamondbacks beat the New York Yankees in seven games and he won three of them.
”And I had more in the tank,” he said.
At 46, maybe he still does. But there comes a point when the recovery efforts are no longer rewarded on the field, and Johnson’s ERA was almost five last season, this for the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park. It got him to thinking more about leaving for good, what with the aches and DL time and then having to pitch to all these young guys whose big-league fathers couldn’t hit him either. It was exhausting.
Yet, so well spent. He pitched, yet without playing the game. At a time when we’ll debate which pitchers go to Cooperstown and which don’t, this is a Hall of Famer, after a career spent on the pointed end of a mullet and a scowl.
Now, after learning to climb the mound and smooth his mechanics and deliver a baseball the same, three-quarter way, again and again, now Randy Johnson must figure a way to climb down.
”I would like to officially announce my retirement,” he said on the other end of the line. ”I definitely wanted to relax from the season being over and make sure I had a clear head when I made this decision, that I’d be making it whole-heartedly and I would stick to it. … I will officially be retired after today.”
By the end, when it really was time to stop, he laughed.
”Some of you,” he said, ”I’m sure have already hung up. But I thank you for your time. I’d like to say thanks for everybody being a part of this conference call. And I’ll see you down the road.”
He paused. It was time for him to hang up. He added, ”It’s been a great career.”
It couldn’t have gone any other way.