Randy Johnson is working from the stretch position, answering a
reporter's questions while sprawled on a big chair in the big
house that the Big Unit built. The ceilings are so high and the
doors so enormous you expect to find a magic harp and a goose
that lays golden eggs sitting in the den. Johnson, the 6'10"
Seattle Mariner pitcher, assures you it is safe to speak to him
here in his Bellevue, Wash., hilltop home, because this happens
to be a day he is not pitching. Otherwise ... well, what?
"Theresa!" he shouts to his sister-in-law, who quickly appears
in front of him. "What am I like on the days that I pitch?"
She drops her voice to a low, measured monotone, as if doing
Schwarzenegger, and replies, "I am the Intimidator!"
Johnson busts up laughing at his own joke. That's how he had
described himself in dismissing threatening comments from Jim
Leyritz of the New York Yankees after nailing him with a pitch
on May 31. As for Leyritz, Johnson had added, "He's the
June 25, 1995
The Intimidator is the scariest pitcher in baseball on the days
he's scheduled to start, beginning from the moment he wakes up.
Even his wife, Lisa, knows not to dig in against him. "I pretty
much don't talk to him," Lisa says. All he wants is to be left
alone with his simmering intensity and his requisite game-day
breakfast: two scrambled eggs, three pancakes, a small glass of
orange juice and a large milk. Only once did Lisa try sneaking
off to the gym without serving up the flapjacks. "Where do you
think you're going?" asked the Intimidator.
Teammates are afraid to talk to him on the day he's pitching. "I
don't even bother saying hello," says third baseman Mike Blowers.
Johnson doesn't hesitate to brush back even a photographer, as
he did last Friday while warming up before his start against the
Minnesota Twins at the Kingdome. He tried to shoo away the
photographer, who was crouched in front of the backstop. But
Johnson couldn't be heard above the pounding music being cranked
out of the stadium speakers. When he received no response,
Johnson flung the baseball at the photographer, barely missing
him. O.K., so it was only a changeup. It's the thought that
Imagine, then, how unwelcome an opposing player must feel when
he bats against Johnson. The hitter gets a good look at the
scowl on the Intimidator's weathered, gunslinger face, which
would do Jack Palance proud. He discovers that Johnson, standing
on a 10-inch mound, looks 10 feet tall. He sees the kick of
Johnson's size-13 shoe, the splaying of his linguine-long locks,
the flinging of his left arm with the 37-inch sleeve length, and
then maybe -- maybe -- he catches a glimpse of a 97-mph fastball
that just might go whistling past his ear. Always by accident
when it does, of course.
"That's one reason I don't pitch inside," Johnson says. "I don't
like to throw the ball up and in because of what the outcome
might be. My control is not that good."
Says Blowers, who also played in the Montreal organization when
Johnson was Expo property from June 1985 through May 1989, "Deep
down he has this terrible fear of seriously hurting someone one
Scary? He's only the Stephen King of pitchers. This is a
lefthander who built a reputation for having a scattershot arm
and acting flakier than psoriasis. He's an aficionado of two
genres of music: heavy metal and, whatever his intentions, chin.
So unsettling is the proposition of facing Johnson that Boston
Red Sox slugger Mo Vaughn, himself a formidable figure at 245
pounds, defines his perfect season as one in which he plays 160
games -- every one except the two in which Johnson pitches against
Boston. "He is," says Seattle manager Lou Piniella of his ace,
"the number one dominating pitcher in baseball. I don't even
know who's number two. I've never seen anybody like him."
What's really frightening now is that Johnson, at 31, has, in
his words, "finally harnessed my ability." No longer is he some
traveling Ripley's exhibit. Come see the tallest pitcher ever to
walk 10 batters in four innings! He is painting outside corners
with backdoor sliders while cutting the frequency of his walks
by more than half from what his rate was three years ago.
One third of the way through the 1995 season, Johnson (6-1, 2.75
ERA) was striking out batters at the unprecedented rate of 12.75
per nine innings (relative light-years ahead of Nolan Ryan's
record of 11.48, which he set as a Houston Astro in '87) while
walking only 2.88 batters. Only Sandy Koufax of the Los Angeles
Dodgers and Mike Scott of the Astros (chart, below) have
finished a season with such an impressive combination of power
Gone, too, are the Groucho glasses, the coneheads, the yellow
police tape and the other props that made Johnson the clubhouse
clown. "Never see them anymore," Blowers says.
"I can look you in the eye and tell you I have never enjoyed
playing baseball more than I do now," Johnson says. "Not in
Little League, not in high school, not in college. The word
potential used to hang over me like a cloud. People would say,
'What kind of game are we going to get today?' Now I'm content.
Right now I'm enjoying every aspect of my life."
He is a changed man. Being hit by a 24-month emotional meteor
shower of death, marriage, birth and religion can do that.
The Intimidator looks vulnerable. Maybe it has something to do
with the fuzzy purple dragon puppet on his right hand. He is
lying on his living-room carpet and cooing silly sounds into the
ear of "my little papoose." The object of his affection is
Samantha, his six-month-old daughter, who was born two years and
three days after his father died on Christmas Day 1992.
"He just melts around her," Lisa says. "Nothing else is so
important to him anymore. When he's away he phones every night
and talks to her. He'll call and ask me right away, 'How's
Sammy?' And I'll go, 'Uh, I'm fine, thank you.' I think she
makes the holidays a lot better too."
Randy's father, Bud, suffered an aortic aneurysm while Randy was
flying from Washington to California to spend Christmas with his
parents. Bud had died by the time Randy made it to the hospital.
He laid his head on his dead father's chest, wept and cried out,
"Why'd you have to go now? It's not time."
So crushed was Randy that he told his mother, Carol, "I don't
know if I want to pitch anymore. I'm thinking of quitting."
Randy was then a 49-48 career pitcher who had led the American
League in walks three straight seasons, though he had finished
strongly that year after an impromptu tutoring session from
Ryan, then with the Texas Rangers, and the Ranger pitching coach
at the time, Tom House. Most tellingly, House suggested Johnson
land on the ball of his right foot -- not the heel -- when he
delivered his pitches.
Carol advised him that he should keep pitching. Randy eventually
agreed. He also became a practicing Christian and pledged 10% of
his earnings to charity. He drew a cross and the word dad on the
palm of his glove and has glanced at the markings whenever he
has needed strength on the mound. He has usually found it;
Johnson won 19 games in 1993, struck out 308 batters and cut his
walk rate from 6.16 per nine innings in 1992 to 3.49.
The following November he married Lisa -- "only after I was
convinced that she knew what she was getting into," he says.
"You know, I'm like this troll living underneath the bridge." A
month later he signed a four-year, $20.25 million contract.
"Yes, changing my mechanics was a key," Johnson says of his
turnaround. "But that's just a small part of it. My heart got
bigger. Determination can take you a long way. After my dad died
I was convinced I could get through anything. I don't use the
word pressure anymore. That's for what he went through. Life or
death. I use the word challenge. And I'll never again say, 'I
can't handle it.' I just dig down deeper.
"I mean, if you look at it, I was barely a .500 pitcher before
my dad died and I got married and had a baby. In the last three
years, after all of that, I'm 38-15. My wife and baby have
brought me down to earth. I'm not as selfish as I used to be.
Win or lose, I always have them to come home to."
His mature approach shows on the mound, where, he concedes,
"I've toned down my mannerisms because guys thought I was
showing them up." Whereas Johnson used to dismiss strikeout
victims with a disdainful wave of his hand, now he pounds his
glove into his chest. "That way," he says, "I'll retire with
welts on my chest instead of bruising all those egos out there."
Moreover, Johnson rarely allows an umpire's call or an
opponent's taunts to unravel him. He remembers Oakland A's
manager Tony La Russa shouting at him from the dugout, "Stop
your whining! Quit begging!" Such bench jockeying would turn
Johnson into such a mental mess that, he says, "it was as if I
was this California surfer dude who'd let you take advantage of
him. People tried to rattle me, and it worked."
He knew, though, that he had turned that corner last year when
he heard the voice of an old teammate, Dave Valle, shouting
gleefully from the Boston dugout after Johnson had given up an
ominous ninth-inning walk, "Here we go again!"
"I backed off the mound," Johnson says, "pounded myself in the
chest with my glove and said, 'Not this time,' and closed the
door. Since my dad died, I've become a warrior. That's how I
think of myself."
Says Piniella, "Now when he's got a lead in the sixth or seventh
inning, he really bears down. He feels it. He wants it." On June
5 Johnson set down the final 17 Baltimore Oriole hitters,
including the last three by strikeouts. It was the first time
since Sept. 18, 1993, that a starting pitcher had struck out the
side in the ninth inning. Johnson finished with 12 punchouts
that night, including four of rookie lefthanded hitter Curtis
Goodwin. "He would come back to the dugout shaking his head and
ask if he should look for a fastball or slider," says Oriole
third baseman Jeff Manto. "I don't think Curtis wants to face
Johnson is so nasty against lefthanded batters that, of the 17
at bats lefties had against him through his start last Friday,
he had 14 strikeouts. "Let me tell you, no righthanded hitter is
comfortable against him," says Minnesota's Kirby Puckett, who
nevertheless is a career .309 batter against Johnson. "It's a
scary feeling. All I do is shorten my swing, be quick and try to
go up the middle. If you've got any kind of a long swing, you've
got no chance. And he's tougher now that he locates the ball so
well. Randy and Roger Clemens are the only people in this game
who are capable of throwing a no-hitter every time they go out
The Intimidator is smiling, already showered, dressed and
becalmed after a miserable 10-1 loss to the Twins last Friday
night. Minnesota pounded him for eight runs on nine hits in six
innings in what was only his seventh defeat in 44 starts since
Aug. 14, 1993. (He is 27-7, with a 2.81 ERA and 413 strikeouts
in 329-1/3 innings, over that span.) Puckett accounted for four
of the runs with a grand slam. "I'm not going to lose sleep over
it," Johnson says. "I couldn't have given up a grand slam to a
nicer guy in baseball."
Maybe it was the pancakes. Lisa made the batter, but for the
first time this year she left the cooking to her mom.
Before leaving the Mariner clubhouse, Johnson pours himself a
cup of milk and downs it. He pulls on a blue-and-yellow
windbreaker and walks out the door into the chill of the night.
Lisa is there for him. Down a dimly lit concourse, past
dumpsters and forklifts and concession people going home, they
walk hand-in-hand, never letting go until they reach Johnson's
white Suburban for the ride home. Not for one moment does he
look like a losing pitcher.
POWER OF POSITIVE PITCHING
Twenty-one times a pitcher, with at least 20 starts, has
averaged 10 or more strikeouts per nine innings for a season,
but in only three of those instances has the pitcher also
averaged fewer than three walks per nine innings. Here are those
three seasons plus the 1995 stats of Randy Johnson (through his
start last Friday), who could also pull off that feat.
Pitcher, Team Year Starts Ks per 9 BBs per 9
Sandy Koufax, Dodgers 1962 26 10.55 2.78
Sandy Koufax, Dodgers 1965 41 10.24 1.90
Mike Scott, Astros 1986 37 10.00 2.35
Randy Jonhson, Mariners 1995 11 12.75 2.88
Here are the four best single-season strikeout ratios per nine
innings in baseball history.
Pitcher, Team Year Ks per 9
Nolan Ryan, Astros 1987 11.48
Dwight Gooden, Mets 1984 11.39
Nolan Ryan, Rangers 1989 11.32
Randy Johnson, Mariners 1993 10.86
Source: Elias Sports Bureau