Friday June 5th, 2009

In so many ways, Randy Johnson has always been a man apart. There was his 6-foot-10 frame that made him the tallest man in baseball, a towering physical presence with the glowering mound disposition to match. His advancing age and status as a living legend further sequestered him, especially in recent years on youth-oriented teams filled with players more than half his age. Then there was his personality that many described as surly, a description he wore as a badge of honor reflective of the tunnel vision that had much to do with the length and dominance of his 22-year career.

But the main way in which Johnson distinguished himself has always been this: few pitchers, especially in this offensively dominant era, have been as dominant for as long as he has. The result is that the man who has always stood alone is now a member of one of the most exclusive fraternities in all of baseball: the 300-win club.

"He's a good guy, but it's tough for him to get out and be comfortable," said one Giants person. "His stature and size creates that."

If Johnson the man has always been difficult to know and sometimes difficult to like, Johnson the pitcher has been all too easy to appreciate because his greatness on the mound did not need to be explained, only witnessed. After all, there's nothing complicated about slinging 100-mph fastballs by hitters with his distinctive sidearm delivery or causing them to give themselves hernias swinging at his nasty slider as it dove out of the strike zone.

Johnson is not that pitcher anymore. The once fearsome fastball is dangerous now only because of the reputation and experience of the man throwing it, not because of the velocity that accompanies it. On Thursday, Johnson rarely broke 91 and when he reared back to throw a third strike past Washington's Austin Kearns it may have looked like vintage Johnson, but it came in at a mere 88 mph.

But then, nothing about Johnson is very fast anymore. He was still walking from the bullpen to the Giants dugout when Aaron Rowand swung and missed at the first pitch of the game from Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann. Part of that is due to the 45-year-old's age, and part to the dual back surgeries he has undergone in the past two years. Those operations may have sapped some of the life from his fastball, but they gave him the additional motivation to succeed that money (Johnson will have made about $175 million in his career after his one-year deal this season expires), personal goals (he's a five-time Cy Young winner) and even team success (he's played for a World Series winner and eight playoff teams) never could.

"[I'm] proud the most of persevering," he said Thursday, adding that when he had the surgeries "Three hundred wasn't on my mind. I just wanted to get through the surgery, get healthy and prove I could still pitch."

Johnson also discovered a newfound appreciation for his accomplishments, and for the players he had watched do the same thing. And perhaps he has mellowed this year, maybe becoming a little less distant as his career draws to a close and his place in history is more secure. He realized what he had to offer to the next generation and he took the vast knowledge of his experiences and has tried to impart it to the younger pitchers around him, especially reigning NL Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, so that they could know now what it took him years to learn. "I have a greater appreciation for the game now [and] I'm more interested in talking baseball this year than in other years," he said. "I told Timmy, the second year will be more difficult than the first year."

"He's been very open to all the guys [on staff]," said pitching coach Dave Righetti. "At one time or another, I'm sure they've all gone to him for advice."

"He's not going to be the guy that talks a lot," said Lincecum, who grew up in the state of Washington watching Johnson star for the Mariners and wanting to throw 100 mph like he did. "[But] if he talks you listen."

Barry Zito, like Lincecum and Johnson a Cy Young-winning member of the Giants' staff, also grew up admiring Johnson, although he's been reluctant to mention his admiration to his new teammate. "You don't generally tell guys that because it creates a disparity. His intensity and his focus is something I took from [watching] him," said Zito who had to fly to Miami before Thursday's game ("If I miss it, that's gonna suck," he said).

Johnson has relied on that intensity to keep going at an age when by every right, he should already be in the Hall of Fame, instead of adding lines to his eventual plaque. When the Giants were courting Johnson last offseason to come to San Francisco, he asked his potential employers: What do you expect from me? Nothing, said Righetti and manager Bruce Bochy. "We lowered our expectations level for him so he doesn't have to push himself so hard," said Righetti. "We definitely watch those tough innings when he gets in that 85-100 [pitch count] range, much like with a younger pitcher."

Johnson threw just 78 pitches Thursday, leaving after bruising his shoulder while making a fine defensive play in the top of the sixth. He threw just 79 in win No. 299 last week in San Francisco. After that game, he mentioned to Don Sutton, a 300-game winner and Hall of Famer, that he hoped to win his next game in San Francisco. "It doesn't matter where you do it," Sutton told him. "Just do it." And so the milestone victory came in the nation's capital, in front of an embarrassingly small crowd and against a Washington Nationals team that didn't even exist when Johnson began his major-league playing career in 1988 with the Nats' fore bearers in Montreal. If it was hardly the ideal setting for such an historic achievement -- this is a ballpark, after all, that has motivational quotes and blowup photographs of other teams players everywhere -- that seemed to matter little to Johnson, who flashed a rare smile when the game finally ended and celebrated with several friends and family in the bowels of Nationals Park who had come to share the moment with him, and about whom Johnson spoke glowingly.

He also mentioned his father, who died on Christmas Day 1992 of a heart attack. "I think of him every time I go out to the mound," said Johnson. "The last 17 years of my career, he hasn't seen that. He was always very critical and that's why I don't get caught up in my achievements."

Even the normally stoic Johnson couldn't help but get caught up in this one. Bochy sat next to him during the ninth inning and described Johnson's reaction at the final out as "a cross between celebration and a sense of relief." After Brian Wilson struck out Wil Nieves to end the game, Johnson flashed a wide smile and tipped his cap to the throng of friends, family and Giants fans that had clustered behind the San Francisco dugout and chanted his name throughout the ninth inning. Catcher Bengie Molina gave him the ball from the last out, which Johnson gave to his wife. His son Tanner served as a Giants batboy ("It was great having him as the batboy, but he didn't help me much with my hitting," joked Johnson, who struck out in his only two at bats), and his children were sitting in the front row of his postgame press conference.

"It kind of hit me when I walked on the field," said Johnson of the magnitude of his accomplishment. "It's a long-range achievement, not a one-game achievement or a one-year achievement. I will think about this for a long time."

So will all who saw it. Though Johnson was quick to dismiss talk that he will be the last 300-game winner ever, it will likely be a decade or more before baseball sees a moment like this. It will be even longer before a pitcher like Johnson comes around again.

Perhaps that's why when Lincecum was asked what it meant to see something so rare and something that may never be seen again, the man with the boyish face who trails Johnson by 21 years, 271 wins and 13 inches, took a moment before answering "Three hundred," he said in amazement. Then a sly smile crept across his face. "That," he said "is a lot of f---in' wins."

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