Randy Johnson of the Seattle Mariners long has been the kind of
natural wonder better suited to an Ansel Adams portrait than a
baseball card. No pitcher who has climbed a big league mound has
stood taller (6'10") or struck out batters more often (10.3 per
nine innings) or thrown a baseball much harder (up to 100 mph)
than Johnson. Like the peak of 14,410-foot Mount Rainier, which
looms on the horizon south of Seattle, Johnson has been defined
by his extraordinary measurements.
This season, however, the lefthanded Johnson should be measured
less by his unusual stats and more by his rising station in
baseball history. He added to his stature in a start on June 24
against the Oakland Athletics by striking out 19 batters; no
lefty, and only one righty, Roger Clemens, has ever fanned more
hitters in a game.
Even more stunning, Johnson's loss in that game was only his
second in his last 33 starts. Therein lies the majesty of the
Big Unit: Johnson is the toughest starting pitcher to beat in
this century. Forget the tape measures and the K cards and the
radar guns; what better assessment of a pitcher is there than
that? Never before has Johnson seemed bigger or better. Too
often mentioned in the past as a candidate for Guinness or
Ripley's, Johnson now evokes more revered names.
"He has become what Sandy Koufax was," Texas Rangers general
manager Doug Melvin said after Johnson beat Texas 2-1 on June
19. "Whenever Koufax pitched, you knew if your pitcher gave up
more than two runs, the chances that you'd lose were pretty
good. Randy's the same way. The funny thing is, we got Randy on
a night when he didn't have his best stuff. I felt like we had a
chance, and he still held us to four hits and one unearned run
in seven innings."
Not even Koufax at his best won games at the clip Johnson has
recently. From May 15, 1994, through that start against the
Rangers, Johnson's record was 44-6. No starting pitcher in this
century has had a better mark for a stretch of 50 decisions.
Lefty Grove of the 1930 and '31 Philadelphia Athletics went 46-4
over a 50-game span, but he accumulated eight of his wins while
pitching in relief (chart, above).
In Johnson's last 56 starts through Sunday--or since the final
game before the 1994-95 strike--he has gone 35-4 (an .897
winning percentage). During that stretch you were more likely to
see a no-hitter than see Johnson lose. In his last 71 starts,
Johnson has gone 45-7. (Koufax was 44-10 in 68 starts spanning
1963 and '64, the seasons in which he had his best winning
percentages.) Since Aug. 14, 1993, Johnson has gone 55-10 in 88
starts. Until the Baltimore Orioles beat him 13-3 on May 8 of
this year, he made 30 consecutive appearances, including six in
relief while he was hobbled by a back injury, without losing.
"I don't like to lose," Johnson says. "When I lost in Baltimore,
it felt strange. I don't want it to sound egotistical; that's
not the way I am. But it's just that it had been so long. It was
weird. Do you know what I'm trying to say? I have to live up to
huge expectations. I'm not supposed to lose. When it happens,
it's as if everybody's discovered a chink in my armor. So I've
got to hurry back to the welding shop."
At week's end Johnson ranked first in the American League in
strikeouts (164), second in wins (11) and second in earned run
average (2.18) and was in range to become the first player to
win the league's Triple Crown of pitching since Hal Newhouser in
1945. Not once all season had he been removed from a game in the
middle of an inning.
Most astounding, only 10 months ago, just after having undergone
surgery to repair a herniated disk that limited him to 14
appearances last year, Johnson could not even stand up from his
hospital bed to go to the bathroom. When he turned his body to
urinate into a plastic bottle, he froze in excruciating pain and
he thought not of striking out 19 batters or throwing 99 mph but
this: Please, God, just let me be able to pick up my daughter,
Samantha, and my son, Tanner, again and be able to play a round
of golf in five years.
Of all the tall tales about Johnson, this is the best one yet:
the Big Unit's back.
Johnson is never more imposing than when seen from the
lefthanded batter's box. He slings the ball with a
three-quarters delivery at the end of a 38-inch arm. That means
the baseball leaves his hand from a point about three feet
behind a batter's back--yet it often winds up on the outside
corner of the plate. As the ball cuts across the hitter's field
of vision, the batter must decide in the blink of an eye whether
the pitch is an 88-mph slider that will snap down and away, a
91-mph two-seam fastball that will sink or a 99-mph fastball
that just might have slipped out of Johnson's hand.
"When a pitcher has one slip, it's going to sail up on the side
of his pitching hand--right at your head," says Anaheim Angels
lefthanded hitter Jim Edmonds. "What makes Johnson even tougher
is that he's a little bit wild. There's nobody like him. On the
one hand, I hope I do get in the lineup against him. On the
other hand, I hope I don't. You know what I mean?"
Says another American League lefthanded batter, "I believe Randy
doesn't throw as hard to lefthanders because he's afraid of what
might happen if a ball gets away from him."
Through Sunday, of the 6,919 batters Johnson had faced in his
10-year career, only 699 had been lefthanders, and they had hit
.197 against him. Lefthanded batters aside, Johnson may
represent more of a danger to himself than to hitters. His
physiology is ill-suited to the violence of throwing a ball so
hard and so often. For one, he has a long spine. For another,
"he doesn't have a lot of thigh mass and buttocks mass, so he
may have to use his spine and trunk more than most pitchers to
generate velocity on the ball," says Stanley Herring, a
physiatrist who is part of Johnson's cadre of trainers and
doctors. "Fifty percent of Randy's velocity comes from his spine
Last season the lowest lumbar disk in Johnson's back gave out
from all the torque. Disk matter oozed like jelly from a
doughnut. He underwent surgery on Sept. 12, two days after his
33rd birthday, to have the matter removed. "I felt like I was
training for the Olympics," Johnson says of the rigorous
off-season program he went through to rehabilitate his back.
"I'm still not out of the woods yet, and I know I won't be until
I have a whole year under my belt."
This is what the highlight reels didn't show you from Johnson's
19-strikeout game: Between innings he watched the game on
television while lying on his back on a table in the trainer's
room with his feet propped up on a foam block. In Texas during
his previous start, he lay on a blanket of towels on the floor
of the runway between the dugout and the clubhouse until it was
time to pitch again. Johnson cannot stand or sit for a prolonged
period, a lesson he painfully learned while watching a
three-hour Smashing Pumpkins concert last winter.
In whiffing 19 A's, Johnson threw 142 pitches and came within
two strikes of an unprecedented 21 punchouts, getting a pop-up,
a strikeout and a fly ball in the ninth inning on two-strike
counts. "A special occasion," he said afterward of his high
pitch count (his limit: about 130 deliveries). "You never know
if you're going to get that kind of opportunity again."
Johnson celebrated by having a doctor examine his back, as he
does after every start, to make sure his spine had not rotated
out of alignment. Then he flopped onto his stomach on the
trainer's table and was blanketed with 11 ice bags: three on his
left arm, two on his back and two on each hamstring and one on
each calf "to calm the nerves" that run from the back to the
legs. "I was shivering so much I had to go thaw out in the
shower," he says. Then he drove home and took one pill that
reduces muscle inflammation and another that soothes the nerves
in his legs. For an hour he wore an electrified therapeutic
rubber sleeve that helps restore proper blood flow up his left
arm and through the shoulder.
The next day, despite some pain in his lower back, he began his
usual four-day, poststart regimen, which is filled with weight
training, rubdowns, icedowns, stationary bike work and
specialized exercises. Last Friday, three days after the
19-strikeout performance, he underwent an MRI to get a midseason
report card on his back. "It looks very good," Herring said
after reading the MRI. "But what you have to remember is, this
is management, not a cure."
Johnson travels with more gadgets and props than Gallagher. He
packs bungee cords (for resistance training and stretching
exercises), a portable electrical stimulation machine, a large
green inflatable ball (for doing back exercises), a three-foot
fiberglass pole (to be grasped in the middle and wiggled to
strengthen the arm muscles) and a foam block that looks like a
pitching rubber with a rounded bottom. When he steps on the
block with his left foot and raises his other--mimicking the
start of his windup--the block rolls, forcing him to maintain
his balance by using his abdominal muscles.
"I'm a better pitcher because of all the work I've done since
last October," Johnson says. "I'm stronger than I've ever been.
When I struck out 19, I was clocked at 99 mph six or seven times
and maintained 97 throughout the game. I'm able to maintain
velocity into the ninth inning. I believe I'm better because I'm
around the strike zone more, and that's because I'm more
balanced on the mound."
Says Seattle catcher Dan Wilson, "I think he is better, which is
incredible when you think he was on an operating table 10 months
ago. Each year he has improved from the year before, and this
just may be the continuation of a natural progression for him."
"Better?" Mariners manager Lou Piniella says with a laugh. "It's
tough to be better than he was in 1995. He was 18-2. But he's
back to that level. I know this: If I've got to win one ball
game, I could give you 10 pitchers I'd want pitching that game.
But at the top of that list would be Randy."
At home in Bellevue, Wash., last Friday, after undergoing the
MRI, Johnson cannot sit still. He moves from the living room
couch ("Too soft," he says) to the marble hearth of the
fireplace to the carpeted floor, all in the quest of
accommodating his back. He has been robbed of more than 40
starts over three years during the prime of his career because
of the strike and his back injury, denying him a 20-win season
and proper public appreciation of his skills. His foyer is
decorated with photographs he has taken. There is an old shot of
the Manhattan skyline at night from across the East River, just
slightly out of focus and symmetrically composed, like a
drugstore postcard. There is also a more recent shot of
Seattle's Space Needle--laser sharp, framed slightly off center
and shot from an extremely low angle, giving an unusual view of
a familiar landmark. "I can see how far I've come in photography
when I look at these," Johnson says. "It's the same with my
pitching. I feel like I'm getting better. I can see the
He could always hum a baseball, even when he was eight years old
in Livermore, Calif., pretending he was Vida Blue, throwing the
ball so hard off the garage door that he'd pop the nails loose.
"Don't forget to get the mallet out when you're done and pound
those nails back in," his dad, Bud, would tell him. At 33, with
a pink scar on his back that looks like the laces of a miniature
football, Johnson can let a baseball fly with the same kind of
simple joy. He's back in that driveway.
"I feel like God's given me a gift," he says, "and then given a
From May 15, 1994, to June 13, 1997, Randy Johnson had a 44-6
record, the second best for 50 decisions in this century, behind
Lefty Grove (above). Here are the five pitchers, other than
Johnson, with the top marks over a 50-decision stretch.
PLAYER, TEAM DATES OF STREAK RECORD
Lefty Grove, Athletics July 25, 1930, to Sept. 24, 1931 46-4
Rube Marquard, Giants Oct. 11, 1910, to June 29, 1912 43-7
Johnny Allen, Indians June 13, 1936, to July 3, 1938 43-7
Sal Maglie, Giants July 21, 1950, to May 19, 1952 43-7
Preacher Roe, Dodgers Sept. 25, 1950, to Aug. 22, 1953 43-7
Source: Elias Sports Bureau