When an icon rolls through town: thoughts on Randy Johnson

It was a stunning trade, and he does have Star Power

It was a 'stunning trade,' and he does have 'Star Power'

Last night, Randy Johnson got his 300th major league W. I’ll only skirt around a conversation on the relative silliness of the Win stat, made all the more prominent as RJ watched his Giants reliever teammates try not to give up two runs before the Giants gave up another run even if they eventually went on to win the game, &tc. &tc. Point is, Johnson has pitched remarkably well for a remarkable number of years, and if the Win stat shows anything, it’s how frequently a starting pitcher gives his team an opportunity to win, that his dominance extended over so many innings with such consistency that it took his hitter-teammates a little less to wrap up the ballgame.

The MLB Network spent a good hour going over the dips and swerves of The Big Unit’s career, including a Nolan Ryan training video that all but gave the Ryan Express (and some bio-mechanics dude) credit for the 6’10 lefty’s Hall of Fame creds. They flashed a lot of video, jumping from early Randy Johnson to late, with flickering ballcaps changing from Expos to Giants to Dbacks to Yankees to Mariners. And I was able to take a small bit of glee from one of the hats that showed up in the cavalcade: those beautiful 1998 navy blue and gold-starred Astros hats, perched on the head of the Big Unit for one shining half of a year.

’98 would be a good year for the Astros team-wise. With stars like Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Moises Alou–along with lesser knowns like the meteoric Jose Lima, Billy Wagner, Carl Everett and the majestically mustachioed Derek Bell–it was just one of those years where the stars would align for a pretty good run.

Team aside, though, the real spark of that season came with Randy Johnson. He was an American Leaguer, so what I knew of him was mostly second-hand, via highlights and national media coverage. I had not, for example, watched him pitch a whole game or considered with any depth his arsenal or technique. What I found when I went to see him play in the Astrodome was an improbably tall and rangy dude, so imposing that the peak of his cap seemed to brush the cieling of the Dome. Pushing the high 90s on the radar gun, and breaking his slider (which I just learned is called Mr. Snappy) that dove across the plate, when he pitched a game it was an event–you could see from the nosebleeds why his pitches were effective, how dominant he was.

He went 10-1 in Houston, with a 1.28 ERA. In 84+ innings, he struck out 116 batters. In the playoffs, where I watched him pitch while wedged into the high-high seats behind home plate with 55,000 other awestruck Astro fans, he hit an RBI single up the middle, which was something like watching a 200-foot crane fling a bowling ball over Buffalo Bayou.

If a star baseball player is one whose presence elevates a fan’s awareness of the game and expands the parameters of what seems possible, then Randy Johnson is a star baseball player. That he’s done it for so long is unthinkable.

In the final pitches of the game last night, there was a camera shot that captured RJ and his son. As the son, brace-faced and mop-headed, struggled to contain his excitement, the Big Unit continued to scowl out onto the field. In a postgame interview, he mentioned that it was nice to get the win, but that there was a lot more work ahead. On nights like those, it bears looking behind a little, too.

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