The Unit Has Landed

Feb. 28, 2005
Feb. 28, 2005

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Feb. 28, 2005

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The Unit Has Landed

Ace lefty Randy Johnson, a pitcher the Yankees coveted for nearly a decade, hit the ground running--and chatting--at his first spring training in pinstripes

RANDY JOHNSON may already have gone Sean Penn on the paparazzi, held two press conferences (with and without shrimp), signed his new team's standard-issue megacontract and pulled on the famed pinstripes--just as the portly Cecil Fielder set a club record for most, the 6'10" Johnson did so for longest--but he officially became a New York Yankee last Friday morning when owner George Steinbrenner walked up to him in the team's Tampa spring training clubhouse, stuck out his hand and said, in a rare moment of deference, "Hi, big man." ¶ At last, more than six years after Steinbrenner actively began his pursuit of Johnson, the Big Unit and the Big Kahuna met face-to-face for the first time.

This is an article from the Feb. 28, 2005 issue Original Layout

"Glad to see you're cleaned up," Steinbrenner said, noticing that Johnson's trimmed locks and beardless mug conformed to club policy. "Glad you're here."

"Cleaned up?" Johnson said in feigned surprise after his daily workout. "I didn't even take a shower yet."

Steinbrenner took no note of Johnson's usual droll humor and moved on. He then told reporters he had coveted Johnson "ever since he beat us in Seattle" in the 1995 Division Series. "He's just a gamer," Steinbrenner said. "He's a helluva pitcher."

The Boss had missed out on Johnson when the Mariners traded him to the Houston Astros in 1998, when Arizona signed him as a free agent after that season and, most critically, when the Diamondbacks considered dealing him at the nonwaiver trade deadline last July--a whiff that most likely cost the Yankees the World Series. New York finally succeeded on Jan. 11 by sending the Diamondbacks righthander Javier Vazquez, lefthander Brad Halsey, catcher Dioner Navarro and $9 million. In Steinbrenner, Johnson has found a soulmate in competitive spirit. He says he understands that he's a Yankee for no other reason than to win the World Series. "It's like Donald Trump and money--he's got plenty of it but never enough," Johnson said on Saturday. "When you win, you want more of it. You can't win enough. That's why I think this is a good fit, because they expect to win and I expect to win.

"I know every team goes to spring training hoping they're good enough to get to the postseason. This team isn't even talking about the postseason. It's talking about the World Series and winning it. Who else does that? Maybe Boston now. Oakland, back in the [1970s]. You have to be here to understand that, and after only three days I do."

Johnson is a Yankee because New York has not won the World Series in four seasons, an epoch in Steinbrenner Time. Last winter the Yankees blundered in remaking their rotation after Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and David Wells left as free agents. New York miscalculated on the enigmatic Vazquez, who suffered a second-half meltdown; erratic righthander Jose Contreras, whom they jettisoned to the Chicago White Sox in midseason; and creaky righty Kevin Brown, the nominal ace who beat up only Tampa Bay (4--0 versus the Devil Rays, 6--6 against other teams) and a clubhouse wall (result: a broken left hand). New York's season ended with a 10--3 pasting by Boston in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, in which the Red Sox bludgeoned Brown and Vazquez for a 6--0 lead before the Yankees had batted in the second inning.

Though the Yankees won 101 games (only one by a lefthanded starter, Halsey), they became the first team in major league history to break the century mark without a 15-game winner. "That's hard to believe with a team like this," says Johnson, who went 16--14 for an Arizona team that won only 51 last year. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman oversaw another makeover this off-season, vowing to add youth, power and lefthandedness to the rotation. Free-agent righties Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, both 29, are hard throwers in their primes. The lefthanded Johnson, who turned 41 last September (his uniform number will match his age this year, since centerfielder Bernie Williams wears Johnson's traditional 51), is simply the greatest strikeout machine baseball has ever seen (11.12 K's per nine innings, tops all time among pitchers with 1,000 innings or more), with no signs of diminished skill. Over the last eight seasons Johnson averaged 231 innings and 307 strikeouts.

"Last year was one of my best years," he says. "I struck out 290 batters at 41 years old. I'm tired of people questioning me because of my age. If you looked at my numbers and watched me throw and covered up my birthdate, would age be an issue? No. How old is [Johan] Santana? Twenty-five? Did he have a better year than me?"

After two throwing sessions by Johnson, Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre said he was "amazed" at how easily the ball flew out of Johnson's hand. Johnson gushed, "I feel good on the mound right now, better than I have the last couple of years."

"The difference between championship teams and good teams every year seems to be two guys who pitch lights out in the postseason," says righthander Mike Mussina, the likely No. 2 behind Johnson. "Randy is one of those guys."

The only concession Johnson makes to age is to ride an exercise bike rather than take part in the pitchers' standard running program--with one notable exception last Saturday. When rookie righthander Chien-Ming Wang botched a grounder during a fielding drill, under penalty of running to the foul pole and back with two teammates of his choosing, he boldly fingered the veteran Johnson as one of his punitive running mates. "He looked at me, and I thought he was kidding," says Johnson, who completed the run with a mock limp.

last july the Diamondbacks were discussing a Johnson trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Johnson, armed with a no-trade provision and owed $16 million for the '05 season, told Arizona that he would accept such a trade. That deal fell through, however.

Johnson said he was perplexed after the season when Arizona did not approach him about a contract extension or to discuss the direction of the team. He said it was not until December, and only after the Diamondbacks had signed a pair of free agents--third baseman Troy Glaus and righthander Russ Ortiz, to contracts totaling $78 million--that prospective CEO Jeff Moorad called with a proposition. If Johnson wrote a check to the Diamondbacks for $8 million, half his 2005 salary, the team would grant an extension worth $8 million in '06 and $8 million in '07. Johnson quickly refused and gave the club two choices: keep him for the last year of his contract or trade him to the Yankees. A month later, after a series of near misses and aborted deals, the trade was finalized and New York gave Johnson a two-year, $32 million extension.

It was less than a month later, on Jan. 10, while walking on a Manhattan street on his way to his Yankees physical, that Johnson stiff-armed a TV camera operator. "Dad," his eight-year-old son, Tanner, told him excitedly on the phone that night, "I heard you took down a cameraman!"

Johnson issued repeated public apologies and even lampooned the incident on Late Show with David Letterman. Now he's brought his dry lounge act to Tampa, happily courting the media and defusing any whiffs of controversy with humor.

Jose Canseco's book? "I wouldn't waste my money," he says. "I'd rather pay to watch Waterworld. Twice."

His secrets to staying fit, which include hits from an oxygen tank in his locker between innings; a liquid-filled, titanium-lined corset to support his back; four midseason injections of a synthetic lubricant into his right knee; a Canadian professor he pays to advise him on nutrition and fitness; and the occasional nap in a hyperbaric chamber? "Nothing from BALCO," he says.

His response when manager Joe Torre asked him before a Friday workout if he was going to throw in the bullpen: "I threw yesterday. I only pitch two days in a row in the World Series"--an allusion to his Game 6 and 7 wins over the Yankees in 2001.

A possible Opening Night start against Curt Schilling and the Red Sox on April 3? "I'm looking forward to it," he says, "and a root canal next week."

The Johnson-Schilling relationship adds further intrigue to a Yankees--Red Sox rivalry that seems to have Vince McMahon's fingerprints on it. After 52 games the past two years (27 won by Boston), including a split of two Game 7s and several brushback wars and brawls, Boston rightfielder Trot Nixon last week called Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez a "clown," and righthander Bronson Arroyo and outfielder Kevin Millar piled on. "I've learned already that things get amplified here," Johnson says, "but this team is defined by its professionalism. Part of the expectations here [relate to] the way you carry yourself and the way you act. I've noticed that right away."

Johnson fired no such salvos at Schilling, with whom he formed a friendship and one of the greatest pitching duos in history as they carried Arizona to the 2001 world championship. The friendship cooled over the next two years, before Schilling was traded to Boston after the 2003 season. Johnson said he would not have accepted a trade to Boston last July, though he insists that Schilling's presence was not a factor. "It just wasn't a fit," he says.

Johnson says he left messages for Schilling after Boston beat the Yankees in the ALCS and the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series and later bumped into him at church near their Phoenix-area homes, but he did not get a return call. "I understand he was very busy," Johnson says, "flying on Air Force One, campaigning for Bush, doing his [ankle] rehab, talking to ESPN, Fox, CNN, SI, Popular Mechanics, House and Garden--only kidding.

"I'm proud of what we accomplished as teammates. That can never be taken away. I've moved on. He's moved on."

Johnson's introduction to the Boss and his easy transition to a new clubhouse have begun to make him a Yankee, but he knows that first game against Boston will really start to define him in New York. "My job [in that game] is no different than pitching against Baltimore or Toronto or every fifth day when I go out there," he says. "I expect to win. I've never been content with anything I've ever done."

Well, there was that one night last year in Atlanta, May 18. After the game, Johnson celebrated with some teammates at the hotel bar for a bit, then retired to his room. He was so happy, he couldn't sleep. He stayed up until 3 a.m., just laughing out loud, alone. "Belly laughs," Johnson remembers. "Big belly laughs."

He had been flawless, becoming the oldest pitcher to throw a perfect game. For that one night he was as good as even he could ever expect to be. As good as the Yankees hope he will be.

'Tis the Season

As camps opened in Florida and Arizona, pressing questions inevitably began springing up all over

While the Yankees regard Randy Johnson as a given, they also face one of the greatest uncertainties in baseball as the 30 spring training camps open in earnest this week. These are the five questions that loom largest this spring.

What kind of player is Jason Giambi?

The Yankees admit they have no idea what Giambi can do after two seasons plagued by injuries, illness and, now, the steroid scandal. Tino Martinez takes his first base job, leaving Giambi to DH, a job he has never liked. Hitting coach Don Mattingly will try to wean him from being a dead-pull power hitter and back to using the whole field.

What will the A's do without

the Big Three?

At 26, lefthander Barry Zito is the Yoda of the Oakland rotation, now that former mates Tim Hudson (Braves) and Mark Mulder (Cardinals, above) have been traded. The Athletics do have talent, if not experience, in a pair of 23-year-olds--righthander Rich Harden and lefty Dan Meyer--as well as 24-year-old righties Joe Blanton and Danny Haren, but they'll need a deeper bullpen and insurance from Keiichi Yabu, 36, to make up for the inevitable loss of innings.

Will the Astros trade for a centerfielder before Opening Day?

Houston lost righthander Wade Miller (Red Sox), second baseman Jeff Kent (Dodgers) and, most critically, centerfielder Carlos Beltran (Mets). Lance Berkman, who may be the stopgap solution, is recovering from knee surgery and is better suited to left even when healthy. Mike Cameron of the Mets or Eric Byrnes of the A's would fill the bill.

Are the Cubs better off without Sammy Sosa?

The boom-box-free clubhouse may be a happier place, but Chicago lost 74 homers and 186 RBIs with the departures of Sosa and Moises Alou. To make matters worse, the Cubs will conduct closer tryouts, with LaTroy Hawkins, Joe Borowski, Ryan Dempster among those getting a look.

What medical issue will have the biggest impact?

Take your pick. Boston's Miller (shoulder), Andy Pettitte of the Astros (elbow, below) and Brad Penny of the Dodgers and Chris Carpenter of the Cardinals (biceps nerve problems) are pitchers coming off injury-shortened seasons. Twins catcher Joe Mauer (knee) and Mets shortstop Jose Reyes (assorted leg problems) lost most of last year to injuries. But the closest scrutiny will be on Cardinals MVP candidate Albert Pujols, who still has not recovered from the plantar fasciitis that bothered him last year. --T.V.

"I'm tired of people questioning me because of my age," says Johnson.
"HOW OLD IS [JOHAN] SANTANA? Did he have a better year than me?"
COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Chuck SolomonMR. BIG Even amid a star-studdedcollection of talent in Tampa, Johnson stoodout, and not just because he's 6'10".COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Chuck SolomonAN EXCELLENT VINTAGE The 41-year-old Johnson has averaged 231 innings and 307 strikeouts over the past eight seasons.COLOR PHOTOTOM DIPACE (LEFT)COLOR PHOTODARREN CARROLLCOLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Chuck Solomon LEFTHANDED COMPLEMENT   Johnson (far left) joins a revamped staff that includes (from left) Pavano, Brown, Wright and Mussina.