When Hubie Brooks, Otis Nixon and Tim Raines of the Montreal Expos heard at the start of spring training that Randy (Big Bird) Johnson would be serving them their daily batting practice, the three hitters, who have a combined total of 8,953 major league at bats, acted as if they had each shrunk by at least two feet. Brooks said there was no way he was going to face the rookie Johnson first because as an RBI guy, he doesn't do leadoff. Nixon begged off, too, noting that, though he often bats first now, he has hit at the bottom of the order for much of his 650-at bat career. So Raines, a former batting champion and for a time the National League's premier leadoff hitter, reluctantly stepped up to the plate. Hey, Randy," he yelled, "time to work on those changeups!"
As this episode shows, Johnson has a way of transforming big-time hitters into skittish schoolkids. He's a lefthander with a crisp slider who can crank the ball up to 97 mph, and he's just wild enough to make batters' knees quake. But what really makes the hitters fearful is Johnson's size: At 6'10", he's the biggest big leaguer ever, eclipsing 6'9" Johnny Gee, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants in the 1940s. With his long limbs flailing and his sky-high release, Johnson is a paralyzing sight for hitters, particularly left-handed ones. Says Raines, "He doesn't look that big up there. Just about nine feet tall."
This season the 25-year-old, 225-pound Johnson, who was called up to Montreal in September and went 3-0 with a 2.42 ERA, wants to distinguish himself by the size of his success rather than the length of his inseam (38 inches). "What we saw last season was all positive—his arm, his stuff, the quality of his fastball," says Montreal manager Buck Rodgers. "We have to see how he handles adversity at this level, because he hasn't had any yet."
Though Johnson towers above this year's batch of rookie pitchers, he's not the only newcomer at that position who stands out. In fact, baseball seems to be rearming itself with a bumper crop of young starters. There's a rail-thin Dominican, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Ramon Martinez, and a portly portsider, the New York Mets' Dave West. There's a hard thrower with sharp control, Erik Hanson of the Seattle Mariners, and a not-so-hard thrower with even more precision, Bob Milacki of the Baltimore Orioles. There's the Chicago Cubs' fireballer, Mike Harkey, who was so shaky during his 34⅖ innings in the majors last year, he almost turned the Windy City into Beantown. And while Johnson is the long of this year's freshman class, 5'9", 160-pound Tom (Flash) Gordon of the Kansas City Royals is definitely the short of it. Gordon, whose curveball is often compared with that of the young Bert Blyleven's, was the first pitcher in four years to be named Minor League Player of the Year by Baseball America. He was also the smallest righthander on any American League staff, a point Gordon would rather not dwell on. "You can say, 'Flash, you're ugly,' but don't ever say, 'Flash, you're too small to be doing what you're doing,' " he says.
Last year 23 pitching prospects made their clubs' opening day rosters, and this year the total will most likely be even higher. "Talent runs in cycles," says Art Stewart, the Royals' director of scouting. "There are cycles when you have a lot of great catchers or great hitters. Kids seem to throw a lot now, but you can't really explain it. In the last few years more good arms have surfaced."
And few arms are better than Johnson's. Yet, though the Expos already have him slated for the fourth or fifth slot in their rotation, there are still a couple of things that could hold him back. One is his control, which can be erratic. Another is his reputation for being a space cadet. In 1983, when he was a freshman at Southern Cal, Johnson made his collegiate pitching debut as a reliever against Stanford. Upon reaching the mound, he told his coach, Rod Dedeaux, that he would pitch out of the stretch to hold the runner. Dedeaux paused, assessed the situation, turned to Johnson and told him that the runner he was planning to hold on was the Cardinal's first base coach.
Johnson's career has been filled with anxiety-provoking moments like that, beginning with his first game as a Little Leaguer in Livermore, Calif., when he showed up late, couldn't find his team and returned home to his mom in tears. The real trauma, however, came between grades 7 and 12, when Johnson grew from 6'2" to 6'9". Though it helped him as a basketball player—he twice led the East Bay Athletic League in scoring—Johnson's height became the butt of adolescent humor. He started to withdraw.
"I used to be a real outgoing person when I was younger," he says. "But then I started getting noticed a lot because of my height. I felt like I was in a three-ring circus and didn't know how to handle it." Even last year the P.A. announcer for the Triple A Indianapolis Indians routinely introduced Johnson to the crowd as the world's tallest pitcher, in a tone that Johnson says "made it sound as if I was a freak."
When the Expos picked Johnson in the second round of the 1985 draft, they knew they would have to tighten up his gangling delivery and batten down his roiling emotions. He tended to be self-conscious and moody, and when things went wrong he was reluctant to shoulder the blame. So Montreal assigned pitching instructor Joe Kerrigan to work closely with Johnson at Double A Jacksonville in '87 and in Indianapolis in '88.
As recently as last June 14. Johnson still seemed likely to self-destruct. He was scheduled to be called up to the majors that week, but he took a line drive off his left wrist and was taken out of the game. Thinking that his career might be over, Johnson stormed into the Indianapolis dugout and smashed his right hand on the bat rack. His left wrist turned out to be merely bruised, but the fifth metacarpal of his right hand was fractured, and he missed the next six weeks. It's a measure of Johnson's new maturity that he can now joke about the incident. "Something had to give," he says, "and the bat rack was plywood three inches thick." He even took in stride a notice that appeared on the Indians' clubhouse bulletin board three days later: "Anybody in this organization who does something hasty to inhibit his ability will be fined." Beneath the message was written: THE RANDY JOHNSON RULE. Says Johnson, "Now I know it's been a gift from God to be this tall and to be lefthanded and to have a fastball. I've grown up a lot."
To keep up with his fellow freshmen, Johnson will have to keep growing—in skill, not height. At the end of last week, roughly the midpoint of spring training, these young pitchers had a good shot at starting the season in the majors:
•Gordon. As a five-year-old under his dad's instruction in Avon Park, Fla., Gordon would stand five feet away from a garbage can and flick baseballs into it with a snap of his wrist. That helped him develop his curveball, or his "equalizer," as Royals manager John Wathan calls it. "Now it feels natural to throw the curve," Gordon says. "I can be behind 3-0 and throw it three times. I have one curveball that's slower, which I use when I just want to get the ball over. And I have one that's pretty hard that just gets down."
Trouble controlling his curve and spotting his 86-mph fastball kept Gordon in Class A ball for most of his first two pro seasons and part of last year. But then Flash caught fire and blazed a trail through the minors, moving from Appleton, Wis. (172 strikeouts in 118 innings, 2.06 ERA), to Memphis (6-0, 0.38) to Omaha (3-0, 1.33) to Kansas City. In his first appearance with the Royals, on Sept. 8, he retired six Oakland A's in order, including a whiff by MVP Jose Canseco. Though Gordon's record during his five-game stint was 0-2 with a 5.12 ERA, he picked up 18 strikeouts in 15⅖ innings.
•Martinez. When he was discovered by the Dodgers five years ago in Santo Domingo, the 6'2" righthanded Martinez weighed 122 pounds. Just before signing with L.A., he pitched for the 1984 Dominican Olympic team and then spent five months stuffing himself to gain weight. Now Martinez, who will turn 21 on March 22, is 6'4" and 175 pounds and has a 90-mph fastball. His strikeout pitch, however, is a changeup. "I like it when they swing hard and miss," he says with a smile. Martinez was 1-3 with a 3.79 ERA in nine appearances last year. "He's awkward," says Dodger pitching coach Ron Perranoski, "but as he gets loose, he gets better."
•Hanson. During his freshman and sophomore years at The Peddie School in Hightstown, N.J., Hanson, a 23-year-old righthander, dropped out of baseball temporarily and took a stab at golf, and he was so good in basketball as a senior he considered playing hoops, instead of baseball, in college. But his direction was decided when he received a baseball scholarship to Wake Forest and played for the U.S. national team in 1985, going 5-1 with a 1.42 ERA in international competition. "I think it really helped me to get away from baseball for a couple of years," he says. "When I got back into it, I really wanted to do well."
Even though he's a power pitcher, the 6'6" Hanson has a 3-to-1 ratio of strikeouts to walks over the past three seasons. In six starts for Seattle in September and October, he was 2-3 with a 3.24 ERA. Meanwhile his golf game has gone into decline. "I used to shoot in the high 70s," he says. "Now that's history."
•West. At 6'6" and 220 pounds, West is a bit on the plump side, but he's a befuddling blizzard of arms and legs on the mound, with a natural motion that gives his fastball a nice bite. His 1.80 ERA at Tidewater last year was the lowest of any Triple A pitcher, and his .273 batting average was better than all but two of the Tides' regulars.
The Mets' staff won't have room for this 24-year-old lefthander unless a trade is made. But if West doesn't start the season in New York, it won't be the first time his patience has been tested. In 1985, he made his debut in Shea Stadium, pitching for Class A Columbia, S.C., against Charleston, and went 7⅖ no-hit innings before the game was called so the Mets could play. Almost a month later he got partial credit for a no-hitter when two relievers finished the game in Columbia.
•Harkey. With the third pitch of his first major league start last September, Harkey beaned the Philadelphia Phillies' Phil Bradley. In his third start he beaned Pedro Guerrero of the St. Louis Cardinals. His Chicago teammates then established a bean pool in anticipation of his next victim. "I was nervous, but it wasn't the kind of nervousness you have before a wedding," Harkey says. "It's the kind where you want to do well." He did, finishing with a 2.60 ERA and without denting another helmet. Now 22, Harkey, who had a 16-4 record in the minors last year, is already being compared to another 6'5" Cub righthander, Ferguson Jenkins.
•Milacki. This affable 6'4", 220-pound righthander disappeared for his first three pro seasons because of a series of nagging injuries, but he came into his own in 1988 thanks to a changeup he taught himself. His 17 victories were the most in the Baltimore organization last year, and he got two of the Orioles' three wins after Sept. 11, including a three-hit shutout of the New York Yankees. Says Milacki, "I'm like someone who came out of the dark and said, 'Here I am.' "
Milacki, 24, doesn't throw particularly hard, just accurately and down in the strike zone. "You can see it in his eyes," says Terry Kennedy, who caught Milacki during his stint in Baltimore. "He hates hitters. That's a very good sign."
It sure is. And whether it comes from high or low on the mound, or in between, it's also a sign of the times in baseball's rookie class this spring.