Randy Johnson’s solitary road to 300
LOS ANGELES – As soon as Wednesday night in D.C. (and if not, maybe Monday in Florida), Randy Johnson(notes) will pitch long enough and well enough to win again, and so will join 23 others with 300 career victories. His San Francisco Giants teammates, many of whom know him personally, will toast that incredible accomplishment.
He is a great and complex and singular piece of work, Randy Johnson. On stuff and ferocity alone, he is the best left-hander in a generation or two – and maybe ever. Those whose memories expire around Swoboda’s catch had seen plenty of Carlton, knew of Koufax, and missed Spahn entirely.
None was quite Johnson.
He threw 100. He wore a mullet that was the attractive half of the mullet/goatee ensemble. He was sloppily and dangerously wild and then he wasn’t. He was forever tall and forever long and he was perfectly beatable and then he wasn’t. He was cranky and aloof and a wonderful brother and son. He hated the media and went to play in New York. He hated losing and signed with the Giants.
So, here he is, 45 years in, a World Series championship in, five Cy Young Awards in, 4,843 strikeouts in, three back surgeries in, at 299.
Nearly 3,000 miles away, you’ll excuse a good many of his former teammates with the Arizona Diamondbacks if they hold their applause.
“I think he’s respected, certainly, in there,” said former Diamondbacks player, current television analyst and one-time Johnson teammate Mark Grace. “But I don’t think he’s going to get a big congratulatory card from these guys when he wins 300.”
It’s complicated, and raises a thought. Is it necessary – competitively, single-mindedly, ruthlessly necessary – to be standoffish to reach 300 wins? Or, if already inclined, do 300 wins simply give one license to stand alone, even in a team sport?
Johnson spent two terms in Arizona, those separated by two seasons in the Bronx.
The second was for two seasons, the past two. A lot had changed. The Diamondbacks had rebuilt around a younger core of players, a strategy the front office hoped would be as beneficial on the field as it was to its debt-management plan. It looked good, too, when they advanced to the 2007 National League championship series and went out fast again in 2008.
Johnson sort of came and went in both of those seasons. He hardly pitched in the first because of more back trouble, which eventually required surgery. He made 30 starts last season and won 11 of them, but skipped parts of road trips to be with his family, a contractual right that nevertheless didn’t play well in parts of the clubhouse.
Already viewed by some as a teammate in uniform only, whose on-field glares and body language became burdensome to tender psyches, Johnson secured his reputation among them in the season’s final week. Despite months of uneven play, the Diamondbacks had won three games in a row – two in Colorado and one in St. Louis – to draw within two games of the first-place Dodgers.
As the division race tightened and hope sprouted, Johnson chose not to attend the three-game series in Colorado or the first of four games in St. Louis. He did, however, rejoin the team for the second game in St. Louis, which was his day to pitch. He strode into the clubhouse that afternoon, clamped on his headphones, and a few hours later gave up four runs to the Cardinals in the first inning. The Diamondbacks lost that game and the next two and their season was done. Johnson did pitch one more time, beating the Rockies in Arizona on the final day of the season for career win No. 295.
Eight months later, they’d seemingly prefer to avoid the subject of Johnson. He’s gone, off to the Giants, who gave him a little more money to fill out their rotation, and off to the Hall of Fame, which they of course would not begrudge him. And they’ve acquired plenty of their own issues without him – starting with the huge deficit in the National League West which already has cost them a manager, a pitching coach and a hitting coach.
“I don’t really have anything for you,” he said. “I didn’t really know him. Wish I did.”
Haren shared a clubhouse and a rotation with Johnson for seven months.
“Uh, you know, it was just like playing behind any other pitcher,” he said.
Except, of course, if a ball got by you.
“Well, the way he reacts sometimes, it could irk guys, irritate guys,” he said. “You can’t take what he does or says to heart, though. That’s just Randy.”
Like Johnson, Dodgers second baseman Orlando Hudson(notes) moved on from the Diamondbacks. While in Arizona, and probably based on his veteran standing there, he’d formed a friendship with Johnson. He’d palled around with Johnson’s sons, the two finding a common interest in the newest and the coolest sneakers.
“Everybody has this misconception about Randy,” Hudson said before the Dodgers and Diamondbacks played Monday night. “I didn’t have any problem with Randy at all. He maybe rubbed some people the wrong way; not me. Randy was just Randy. That was him his whole career, so you can’t ever say he changed.
“Me and him had a couple long talks about that. He goes out on the mound with a vengeance. He goes out there with a lot on his mind because he wanted to do so well. … You know, Randy’s a good dude, man.”
Ultimately, you suppose, it’s about the wins. And few have done it better – or more dramatically – than Johnson. It’s a man’s game, which Johnson went at for more than two decades.
You want a fuzzy teammate, do a puppet show. You want a mentor, go to plumber school. You want a pitcher 30 times a season, Johnson was your guy.
“Randy could have been team-friendlier, teammate-friendlier,” Grace said. “He could have bonded with the team. He didn’t.”
Get to a certain stature, a certain age, and the rules change. Grace mentioned Roger Clemens(notes), who originated the family plan, along with NBAers LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, whose teams provide special treatment because of who they are.
“In that respect, there’s going to be haters,” Grace said. “He might not have given a [expletive] about what people thought about him here, but he gave a [expletive] every fifth day.”
The result, Grace said: “He’s without a doubt the best left-hander of my era, the best left-hander I ever faced and probably the best left-hander I ever covered. From the time, maybe three or four years after he got to Seattle, nobody dominated like him other than maybe Clemens, as far as power pitchers.”
That, presumably, the Diamondbacks can agree on. They don’t have to like it, though.