Commentary

Walking tall, into the sunset

Surefire HOF lefty Randy Johnson announces retirement after 303 wins, 22 seasons

Updated: January 6, 2010, 11:01 AM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, another star athlete renowned for being talented and tall, Randy Johnson never seemed comfortable with life at high altitude. He could be distant, aloof and borderline unapproachable at times.

As Johnson announces his retirement from major league baseball, it's instructive to look back at the genetic circumstances that helped shape his persona. Let's begin with an insight he shared as a rookie pitcher with the Montreal Expos in 1989, when he reflected on the high school growth spurt that brought him to a gangly 6 feet 10 inches tall.

[+] EnlargeRandy Johnson
Jeff Haynes/AFP/Getty ImagesThe icy stare. The untamed hair. And that nasty slider. Randy Johnson, at 6-10, was an intimidating figure on the mound.
"I felt like part of a freak show," Johnson said 21 years ago. "I was the object of everybody's jokes and teases. And it hurt. But it wasn't within my personality to lash out. So instead, I went into a shell and became very defensive. I felt like I grew up in the center ring of a three-ring circus."

Through more than two decades in big league clubhouses, Johnson came to grips with stardom while never entirely embracing it. He fed off the energy of crowds while reveling in his solitude. And he carved out a place in history -- alongside Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton and the game's other great lefty pitchers -- while steadfastly refusing to look more than five days ahead.

Given his natural aversion to the spotlight, it's only fitting that Johnson went out the way he did. Under cover of darkness.

Think about it: After striking out San Diego's Adrian Gonzalez with his final career pitch on Oct. 4, Johnson had the entire winter to contemplate his future. He had four long months to decide whether he wanted to spend another year squeezing into airplane seats and sleeping in hotel rooms, away from his family, and lots of idle time to determine whether his body could tolerate another season of baseball at age 46 going on 47.

So what happens? When Johnson finally calls it quits, it's on a conference call, rather than squirming in a chair behind a microphone on a podium. Even the irascible Jeff Kent managed to emote and shed a few tears last winter at Dodger Stadium.

And the timing was certainly appropriate. Johnson made his retirement official about an hour after Matt Holliday, the biggest catch of the entire free-agent market, agreed to a seven-year, $120 million contract with the St. Louis Cardinals, and eight hours after Jason Bay, the second biggest catch of the winter, donned a Mets jersey in his introductory news conference at Citi Field.

Throw in the announcement of the 2010 Baseball Hall of Fame class on Wednesday, and it's as inconspicuous a farewell as a 10-time All-Star, five-time Cy Young Award winner and 303-game winner can possibly have.

Coincidental? Perhaps. But of all Johnson's observations Tuesday, perhaps the most telling came when he delved into a little psychoanalysis. He built himself an emotional bunker, it seems, because that was the best way for him to survive for those 22 glorious years.

"I don't regret being that way," Johnson said. "I got the most out of myself being that way because when I took it out to the mound, it was an intangible I had and I made it work for me.

"I didn't realize it early in my career. But it really started to click in around 1993, and I was adamant about being as focused as I could be in this game. If it meant being a little ornery or animated or fierce or however someone may describe it, that was just me on the day I pitched."

The postmortems, naturally, will focus on Johnson's bushel basket of statistical achievements. He struck out 372, 364 and 349 batters in his best seasons, giving him three of the top 20 single-season outputs in history. He averaged 10.6 whiffs per nine innings for his career -- compared with Nolan Ryan's ratio of 9.5 K/9.

But when you reflect upon some of the most enduring moments of Johnson's career, a larger-than-life, almost cartoonish thread runs through them.

Teammate Tim Raines gave Johnson his famous nickname in Montreal, colliding with him in batting practice, looking up and exclaiming, "You're a Big Unit!"

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James Lang/US PresswireThe 300 Club: Randall David Johnson, who earned his first win on Sept. 15, 1988, finally reached the milestone on June 4, 2009.
Johnson vaporized a dove with a fastball during spring training in 2001, in a feather-laden encounter that remains an Audubon Society nightmare and a YouTube favorite. He out-mulleted John Stamos, gave John Kruk heart palpitations in the All-Star Game, and prompted George Brett and several other left-handed hitters to call in sick the day he pitched. Who knows how many hours the lefties who faced him eventually spent in therapy?

When Johnson threw his perfect game against the Braves in 2004 -- at age 40 -- his final pitch was clocked at 98 mph. He threw 104 pitches to beat the Yankees in Game 6 of the 2001 World Series, and came back the next night to throw 17 pitches in relief in the series clincher.

Let the record show that Johnson's first career strikeout came against Pittsburgh's Orestes Destrade and that he fanned Rickey Henderson 30 times (and walked him 26 times) in 85 encounters. He survived knee surgery and multiple back procedures, and he hit his only home run against Doug Davis.

And it was Jeff Huson who once watched Johnson digging from first to third base on a teammate's single and compared the sight to a "baby giraffe taking his first steps."

Even Johnson -- Mr. Intensity -- can feel free to laugh at that one now. He's free to play golf to his heart's content in Arizona as part of his favorite foursome with Alice Cooper, Charles Barkley and Glen Campbell. And maybe, he observed Tuesday, he'll wake up one morning and decide the time is right to go "parachuting or zip-lining or swimming with the great whites in Australia."

A lot of retiring ballplayers say the clubhouse camaraderie is the aspect of the game they'll miss the most. Not Johnson.

"I'll miss having an outlet to be that competitive," he said. "Every fifth day, it was a process, and I enjoyed and I relished that process."

The feeling was mutual, Big Unit. Best of luck in your next chapter.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer