I saw a different Randy Johnson Sunday.
The Big Unit was officially cemented with the best to step on the diamond during the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and the man that stood on the stage looked humbled, emotional, vulnerable, open – something that was a rarity in his playing days, where he looked bulletproof, overpowering, and scary as hell.
Johnson had a seismic impact on why I’m a seam-head today. In 1998, my dad treated me and my brother to our first Diamondbacks game as a group against the star-studded Seattle Mariners.
Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Jay Buhner, Edgar Martinez.
These were titans among the baseball world. My brother and I used to get in borderline brawls over who would be Seattle when we would play Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball on Super Nintendo because of the mashers in that lineup, but also because the Big Unit would be toeing the rubber for the M’s.
It just wasn’t fair.
The three Hamm men at the time were in the top row of newly-opened Bank One Ballpark watching the Mariners put some dents on the gently-used hitter’s eye during batting practice, but then we found Randy Johnson walking along a foul line, a few days out from his next start. He wasn’t doing much by comparison to his club-wielding teammates, but we couldn’t not pay attention to him. That was the first of many times I was enthralled by the larger than life (literally and figuratively) flamethrower.
As baseball became my life growing up, R.J. solidified himself as a fixture of my baseball fandom. Even at a young age, I knew I was witnessing greatness from a lot of players on that Diamondback squad, but it was different with Johnson.
I knew I was watching history every five days.
The cumulative dominance was evident with the 303 career wins and 4,875 strikeouts as well as spearheading a talented, veteran roster that catapulted a franchise in it’s toddler phase to a World Series winner while winning four of his five Cy Young awards in Arizona. But his time with the Diamondbacks was full of peaks on the Richter scale that made everyone stop what they were doing: 20 strikeouts against the Cincinnati Reds, perfection in 2004 against the Braves during a season that was far from perfect, answering the age old question of “Why DIDN’T the bird cross the baseball diamond?”, and bridging the D-Backs to a comeback win in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series.
When thinking of the performances that made me fall in love with the game and continued to solidify it over the following years, R.J. comes to mind quite a bit.
The performances and stats stick out in my mind, but you can’t talk about Randy Johnson without talking about his demeanor when it was his day to start. The Big Unit was hyper-focused, attacking hitters, staring down opponents (and sometimes teammates) with a controlled ferocity, but would walk off the diamond after striking out a dozen with a “business as usual” expression.
Johnson was a fighter, and his knockout punch was a fastball few could catch up to paired with a slider that would start outside of the strike zone and end up in on the hands of a right-handed hitter. Toss in his size, glare, and the fact that it looked like he was having minimal fun while striking out dozens at a time, and that only added to the intimidation.
This wasn’t a game to Randy Johnson. This was a quest for greatness, a quest that finds a much more relaxed southpaw in Cooperstown this weekend. That humbled ace said himself on Sunday, “I no longer have a fastball, I no longer have a bad mullet and I no longer have a scowl”.
But there are still those memories.
And Arizona is so thankful for that.