Reflections of the Big Unit

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

PHOENIX – The story is in there somewhere, inside a near seven-footer’s frame, a story of 21 seasons on a big-league mound, of 294 wins and almost 4,800 strikeouts, of a father and a brother who were there when it started but gone as it ends, of major surgeries and minor renovations.

His gray T-shirt is soaked across the left shoulder, residue from another shovel-load of ice, those countless now. He’ll take the ball again Friday night, 19 days from his 45th birthday, and the physical maintenance has become nonstop and wearying.

Randy Johnson believes, however, that if the season ended this week instead of next month, if the decision were to be made today, he would pitch another season. He is that healthy. He is pitching that well. Unspoken, 300 is that close, but not guaranteed.

“Eventually,” he says, a rare smile readying for a nudge at Roger Clemens, “I’ll retire and come out of retirement twice and then retire for good.”

For now, he is reliable and, sometimes, brilliant again. Since early July, Johnson is 6-2 and his ERA is 2.05 for the Arizona Diamondbacks. In those eight starts, he has struck out 44 and walked four. In the two losses, he allowed five runs in 14 1/3 innings.

At the All-Star break, not long after losing his sixth consecutive decision, he returned to USC, his alma mater, and to the side of Tom House, the pitching coach who in 1992 altered Johnson’s delivery and with it his career path. In Los Angeles, House advised him to rotate his body more, to load up on his back leg.

“Basically,” Johnson says, “I was throwing all arm.”

He didn’t allow an earned run in his first three starts after the break.

So, here he sits, June’s jabbing doubt gone, a career nearly entirely behind him, only the final numbers awaiting a brush stroke. And he is asked what got him here, the story as he lived it.

He stares blankly for a second, considering such an expanse.

“I don’t think I could tell you that in 15 minutes,” he says. “It’s taken me 16 years. Every day is different.”

Then, over 40 minutes, he tries.

He tries, from the chance meeting with House in front of the dugout that day at the Kingdome and the resulting friendship with Nolan Ryan (who still occasionally calls), from the unbearable losses of his father and brother, to the births of his four children, to the perfect game, to the World Series, to the persistent cameraman on the streets of Manhattan.

He tries, from the rage with which he pitched, “my M.O.,” he calls it, from the knee and back that kept giving out, from the encounter with Warren Spahn that put a face on 300 innings and 25 complete games, from a career spent a pitch at a time.

“Those things,” he says, meaning all of them, “affect people differently. Everybody has their goals in mind, I guess, their objectives when they take the field. Everybody has their threshold of what they think they can do. Just a ton of things have happened, people I’ve met. I don’t think there’s any one thing. I do know now it’s becoming increasingly difficult.”

He tries again, from the days of 98-mph fastballs and pitching for consistency and survival, to the days of 91 mph and pitching toward 300 wins.

“I’ve thought about it, but I think I’m pretty focused on one game at a time,” he says. “At this point in my career, it’s come down to that.”

Yet, he adds, “I have maybe eight starts left and I need six wins. I can’t rush ahead of myself.”

Whatever comes of it, Johnson will finish using the fastball, the slider, the splitter and the two-seamer. As he points out, “Those are the same four pitches I had at the peak of my career,” and so resists the notion he has summoned a new pitcher from an old body. He still throws strikes and he still pushes hitters off the plate, only it’s not often as simple as the high fastball and the buried slider, the way it once was.

He has found other methods. His command is as precise as ever, maybe better. He speeds up his fastball with two-seamers and splitters away. He lives with the ball in play and accepts the diminished pitch counts.

Greg Maddux, one of two active pitchers (Tom Glavine is the other) with more career wins than Johnson, said he’d seen more splitters out of Johnson and that the pitch looks more and more like a changeup. Adam Dunn, who now has seen both sides of Johnson, said Johnson has become less predictable.

“From what I’ve seen, he’s commanding all of his pitches,” Dunn said. “Back in the day, when he got down 2-and-0, you knew a heater was coming. Not anymore. I can only imagine how tough that is on hitters. I think he’s pitching.

Bryan Price, Diamondbacks pitching coach, said no one should be surprised. After all, if Johnson could spot a fastball at 98, he can certainly locate one at 91 or 92.

“Through all these years,” he said, “not only has he dominated, he’s learned how to perfect his craft. Along the way, he learned a lot, learned to harness all that aggression and feed it into the strike zone. He’s the consummate strike thrower in baseball. That makes him who he is.”

And it has gotten him here, going on 45, scarred up but still standing and winning ballgames. The arm is pristine. The psyche is reasonably satisfied. The story, uniquely his, ends this way.

“That I persevered,” he says. “I had two back surgeries. My last year in New York I had a 5 ERA and people wanted to write me off. Just, the guy persevered. And he could pitch.”

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