PICTURE PERFECT PITCHER

Randy Johnson, the Seattle Mariners' 6'10" southpaw, is one of baseball's most explosive—and eccentric—moundsmen
May 03, 1992

Say you're out on the streets, it's 3 a.m., and you turn a corner and stumble into Randy Johnson. He's 6'10", totally disheveled, hair down to here, the sounds of Queensryche exploding in his head. You can just about hear them yourself. His eyes look a little jittery; he's altogether too alert for these circumstances. Say this does happen to you—and it very well could if you're nocturnal and live in an American League city—what do you do? Suggestion: Smile. Let Johnson set up his camera and tripod, snap off a few frames and allow him to disappear into the night vapors. No harm will come to you.

And by the way, you've just met baseball's most explosive and oddest pitcher, quite possibly this generation's Nolan Ryan or its Dizzy Dean. He's perfectly benign, but goofy beyond any explanation. Neither being from California nor throwing lefthanded can account for the psychedelia of his personality. His mind is a virtual buffet. One day he's wearing a Conehead in the Seattle Mariners' dugout, the next he's shrinking from attention, tortured by his visibility. One morning he's pounding his skins to the tune of some Rush song, then throwing the ball 98 mph in the afternoon. Or he's inciting some clubhouse riot with typically inappropriate behavior, like when he poured a gallon of milk over teammate Jay Buhner's head to celebrate a 12-game Mariners losing streak. Or, away from that commotion, vanishing into a big city's solitude with nothing but his camera so that he can continue his work on a picture calendar that will one day benefit the homeless.

If you do run into him at 3 a.m., you might think to engage him in conversation, try making sense of him. It would be pleasant work. Johnson can talk rock 'n' roll or world politics, your pick. If it's baseball you want to discuss, he can talk about the no-hitter he pitched in 1990 against the Detroit Tigers with the same good-humored detachment ("Not a great no-hitter, but a no-hitter") he reserves for the 10 walks he gave up in four innings at Milwaukee in 1991 ("I was melting out there"). Despite his appearance and his game-day scowl, this is a most congenial man. But if you do find yourself in a 3 a.m. t‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢te-à-t‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢te, and the talk veers—as it certainly will, to the voices in the back of Johnson's head—well, there's no reason to run, but maybe it is time to excuse yourself and move along. Anyway, he's got other pictures to shoot.

Happily, if a one-man carnival of confusion is your cup of herbal tea, you don't need to lurk about Seattle's waterfront in the predawn hours to catch Johnson's act. He's the top starter for the Mariners, an All-Star two years ago, a spinner of strikeouts and low-hit games, all in all one of baseball's burgeoning talents. He's a popular draw every fifth day, when he pitches, for sure, but a work of entertainment even on days he doesn't. Mariners fans know by now to keep their eye on Johnson or, as he is known locally, the Big Unit, every minute of the game. He appears to be waving to the crowd when...a fake arm flies out of his sleeve. Or a ball rolls lazily across the dugout roof when...he snatches it back by its invisible thread. Or he is enjoying some rightful downtime on the bench, sipping a cold beverage through a straw that...circulates through eyeglasses.

About this clowning, which becomes lore faster than, say, his striking out Wade Boggs three times in one game, which he did in 1990: The testimony suggests that none of this is done just to get attention. It's likely that, having breakfast alone in his kitchen, he drinks his juice from a dribble glass. "That's just Randy," says Rod Dedeaux, who was his coach at Southern Cal. "Everything he does is out of exuberance. He was never putting on a show. He'd come as close to talking to a baseball as you could without being Mark Fidrych, but I never thought it was an act." Of course, Dedeaux has a high tolerance for the bizarre. "Remember, I also had Bill Lee, and I understood him, too."

Nor can his teammates distinguish Johnson's pranks from his everyday behavior. "I mean, first day he's here," says Buhner, his best buddy, "he's got that yellow police barricade tape all around his locker. That was the first day." Second day it was time for that old clubhouse comedy standby—frozen underwear. "Unit's not the kind of guy you turn your back on," says Buhner, who was his roommate until bailing out on him this year. Say, Jay, don't those shorts seem a little stiff?

Wacky on the bench ("I think he spends too much time with nothing to do," says his mother, Carol), wacky in the clubhouse. Is he wacky on the mound, too? As a matter of fact, he's wacky the entire day when he pitches, just a different kind of wacky. His goofiness disguises a competitive fire that could warm your bones in the upper deck during a night game in April. Everybody leaves him alone the days he pitches. He'll rise at 9 a.m., go to IHOP for a stack of pancakes, read everything but the sports pages, go home, watch TV, play his drums for an hour, then go to the park, whereupon, on a maple-syrup high, he'll do something memorable, one way or another. "It's a Jekyll-Hyde thing," he suggests.

It used to be much worse. When he was a prospect in the Montreal Expo organization, there was something called The Randy Johnson Rule. The front-office guys had come to see him pitch at Indianapolis in 1988, the idea being that they were going to bring him up to the big leagues. But on the very day of the visit, Johnson took a line drive off his left wrist, figured his career might be over and punched out a plywood bat rack with his right hand, breaking both hand and rack, and was out six weeks. Thereafter, if anybody in the Montreal organization did something as foolish to his own body, he was liable for a Randy Johnson fine. Now, much more mature at 28, Johnson is less a danger to furnishings, and there is renewed talk of his vast potential. He is 3-0, on track to surpass his best season—14-11 with the Mariners in 1990—and there is even hope that this will be the year his talent transforms itself into 20 victories. If he can just open his delivery, slow it down....

Historically he's either overpowering and unhittable or overpowering and wild. But at least he's always overpowering. There is nothing in baseball so tantalizing as that. "Every time he goes out there," says catcher Scott Bradley, who was released by Seattle in the spring, "he has a chance to throw a no-hitter."

Johnson was second in the American League the last two seasons in batting-average-against and second in strikeouts last year. Yet because he was first both seasons in walks, his ERA crept closer to 4.00 than 3.00, and his winning percentage hovered around .500. When he is good, he is very good. When he's bad, he's awful. It's all great theater. "There's nothing like watching him walk the bases full and then punch out the side," says teammate and fellow pitcher Brian Holman.

Holman, who came up through the Expo organization with him, predicts that with a little more control Johnson will become more than a novelty act. "He can be as dominant as Roger Clemens.

"What I wouldn't do to have his arm for one game," says Holman. "I'd spend that game scaring people to death. Such explosion, such movement. As a lefthanded hitter, you couldn't pay me enough to stand in there against him." Bradley says he never saw batters bail out on Johnson, "but they do become tentative. Let's face it, he's not a comfortable at bat."

But most of the wildness comes from being 6'10", the tallest player in baseball ever, as Johnson is all too often reminded. Being 6'10" is both a gift and a curse. Johnson understands his arm leverage is what allows him to throw a baseball so hard. But he also understands that with all his dimensions so exaggerated, anything short of perfection in his mechanics can result in a fastball that sails clear off toward the horizon. "When you're 6'3"," he says, "you don't have to be as consistent in your release and arm angle."

Pitching coach Dan Warthen worked with him this spring on his delivery, and the results have been encouraging. Through his 29‚Öì innings this young season, he has given up only 10 walks.

"He could be great," Warthen says. But he'll always be 6'10", and that is a high price to pay for greatness, at least if you're Randy Johnson, "it's amazing how I can walk down the street or in a mall, and the people just stare at me," Johnson says. "Sometimes people come up to me and ask me if I play basketball. Usually I'll tell them yes, I'm Kurt Rambis. Or else I'll say I'm Tom Chambers. And, yes, they really do ask about the weather up there."

Johnson is eerily sensitive to the attention his height earns him, constantly feeling singled out among his peers because of the contrast. "My first start in the major leagues was at Pittsburgh," he says, "and a camera crew asked me to pose next to one of their players, somebody real short. Look in Baseball America, and there's a picture of me and Mel Houston, all 5'8" of him."

In fact, it seems to be his entire identity. On Opening Day this year, when he was matched against Nolan Ryan, USA Today twice referred to his height. On his best days, it's either Randy Johnson, 6'10", or Randy Johnson, tallest man ever to play in the major leagues. "When I got my no-hitter? Tallest pitcher to throw a no-hitter."

Johnson is not embittered by that, just rueful. He wishes that when he got his first major league uniform they didn't have to stitch two pairs of pants together. He wishes people didn't stare at him. "It's like I'm a freak, a sideshow act. I suppose it's not rude to ask me how tall I am; people just want to know. But if you were 300 pounds and people kept asking how much you weighed, would you like it?"

Can he be serious? Is this guy in the Conehead really so tortured? "Listen, when I go out on the mound in another city—and this probably sounds flaky—I hear all these voices, this muttering in the back of my head. I don't hear what they're saying, I don't hear them clearly. But it seems to me that the people are talking about what a freak I am, saying stuff about how tall I am. I often wonder what I do look like. Is there something wrong with me? I'd like to leave my body and see if I'm really that tall. Am I actually head and shoulders above everybody?"

Johnson shrugs as he tells you this, as if it really is beyond anybody else's understanding. He will not get any shorter, so he tries to deal with it. On the whole, he admits, there's been more upside than down to being 6'10". He probably wouldn't be making $1.3 million, he probably wouldn't be on the cusp of Ryan-like achievements if he were 5'8". Still, it is interesting that away from baseball he tends to disappear behind instruments.

There are his drums, which he is very comfortable behind. He plays along with his favorite groups—Metallica, Def Leppard—with more gusto than skill, he suspects. One of the welcome aspects of his celebrity is that he has made friends with some of his hard-rock heroes. He now knows Geddy Lee of Rush, Chris DeGarmo and Scott Rockenfield of Queensryche, has met the guys from Soundgarden. Johnson even played with some of the guys during sound checks. Surrounded by percussion, behind that big drum, those cymbals—does he look that tall?

Mostly there is his photography, which he practices with gusto and skill. There are the conventional sunset shots, which he collects during spring training in Arizona. But mostly there is his city photography, exposures born of a restless mind. Every city the Mariners go to he inspects through a lens. He finds strange sights: a compact car fitted neatly into a Dumpster, a boat docked in front of a no-parking sign. He finds street people, though he refuses to photograph them. That would be...impolite. Rather he would like to put enough of his photography together, a kind of nocturnal tour of major league cities, to make a calendar. He has vague notions that something is not right with society and thinks the proceeds from such a calendar would help. So he won't photograph a homeless person rummaging through the trash, but he would like to help him.

So think of that, too, if you stumble into this apparition some scary morning. And be patient as he squints through the lens, this big, tall guy. This guy who hears voices in the back of his head, who skulks through life an imagined target of ridicule, who because of his strange gift must stand on a little hill, apart from his friends, in front of 57,000 curious and gawking people. Hidden behind his camera, he's looking at you.

PHOTOV.J. LOVEROAround a camera, the imposing Johnson becomes the posing Johnson. PHOTOV.J. LOVEROJohnson can be alternately overpowering and unhittable and overpowering and wild. PHOTOV.J. LOVEROThough it often makes him the center of attention, Johnson's height is a sore subject. PHOTOV.J. LOVEROThere's no doubting that Johnson marches to a different drummer.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)