Commentary

Tall Tales: Big moments for Big Unit

2004 perfect game ... John Kruk's 1993 All-Star Game at-bat ... Dove vs. fastball

Originally Published: June 3, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

In a magazine interview nine years ago, Randy Johnson provided an insightful glimpse into the life lessons that make him tick. He revealed how it felt to be a gangly 6-foot-8, 180-pound teenager, and how the challenge of blending in socially helped shape his personality.

"It's hard to mix with a crowd when you're walking down the hallway and everybody else is a foot shorter," Johnson told Guideposts for Kids. "I remember hanging out with my friends, like at the mall, and thinking people were staring at me and talking about me. It made me turn inside myself. I became more shy and quiet."

If Johnson's goal was go through life unnoticed, he picked the wrong line of work.

Pitchers are accustomed to being the center of attention, and that's especially true for Johnson. Since his rookie year with Montreal in 1988, he has thrown harder and stood taller -- literally and figuratively -- than anybody in the majors.

Now 45, Johnson ranks second to Nolan Ryan on Major League Baseball's career list with 4,843 strikeouts. He's a 10-time All-Star and a five-time Cy Young Award winner. And on Wednesday night at Nationals Park in Washington, he will try to become the 24th member of the 300-win club.

In recognition of Johnson's run at 300, this week's edition of Starting 9 relives the nine most memorable moments -- good and bad -- in the Big Unit's career. If he can beat the Nationals, they'll all slide down a notch.

The Big Thrill (May 18, 2004)

Fourteen years after Johnson threw a no-hitter for Seattle against Detroit, he became the oldest pitcher to record a perfect game. Johnson was four months shy of his 41st birthday when he dazzled the Braves in a 2-0 Arizona victory at Turner Field.

Johnson also joined Cy Young, Jim Bunning, Nolan Ryan and Hideo Nomo as one of only five pitchers to throw a no-hitter in each league.

Johnson overpowered an Atlanta lineup that was missing double-play partners Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles, but still included Andruw Jones and Chipper Jones. He induced 28 swings and misses, threw 87 of 117 pitches for strikes, and clocked 98 mph on the radar gun with his final pitch.

The most enduring moment came during the celebration. After Johnson whiffed Eddie Perez to end the game, he pumped his fist and prepared to shake hands with catcher Robby Hammock. But Hammock, caught up in the emotion, began jumping up and down like a little kid, prompting Johnson to break out in a huge smile. A scrum soon followed.

Later in the Diamondbacks' road trip, in Florida, Hammock received an engraved Rolex watch from Johnson to commemorate their big night.

It was only the 56th major league game for Hammock and the undisputed highlight of his career. Hammock is now 32 years old and playing for Baltimore's Triple-A team in Norfolk, Va., where he spent April and May backing up mega-prospect Matt Wieters.

The Big Scare (July 13, 1993)

A select few left-handed batters had the talent and fortitude to fare well against Johnson. Don Mattingly batted .381 (16-for-42) against the Big Unit. Barry Bonds hit .306 in 42 at-bats, and Mo Vaughn, Shawn Green and Todd Helton all held their own.

John Kruk
AP Photo/Carlos OsorioAfter the first pitch from the Big Unit sailed over his head, John Kruk had trouble keeping both feet in the batter's box.
Then there were guys like Rafael Palmeiro (1-for-21, .048) who had no hope, and an army of lefty hitters who came down with head colds and stiff necks when Johnson took the mound. Harold Baines and George Brett were among the prominent lefty hitters who were less than enthused about stepping in the box against the Big Unit.

At the 1993 All-Star Game in Baltimore, John Kruk took the bullet for "Randy Johnson-itis" sufferers everywhere.

After Johnson threw a ball to the screen on a pitch that he claimed "slipped" because of the humidity, Kruk feigned heart palpitations. He was bailing toward the on-deck circle as he waved at two Johnson sliders and took a seat.

After the game, Kruk told reporters he would rather have his "testicles pulled off" than face Johnson again. He promised to veto all trades to the American League if it meant he would have to hit against Johnson.

"If it were the ninth inning of the seventh game of the World Series and it was my turn to bat and he was pitching, I wouldn't play," Kruk said. "I'd wave the next guy up there. Hey, life's too precious. That boy throws too hard and he's too wild. He could kill someone."

Larry Walker, Johnson's former Montreal teammate, added a postscript to the insanity when he jumped in the batter's box from the right side during the 1997 All-Star Game in Cleveland. It made for great comic theater, but in reality, Walker was one of the few lefties who had a clue against Johnson. He batted a career .393 (11-for-28) against the Big Unit.

The Big Game (Oct. 2, 1995)

After the Mariners overcame a 13-game deficit to force a one-game playoff with the Angels for the American League West title, it was only fitting that Johnson would be on the mound for the big showdown.

Randy Johnson
Therese Frare/Getty ImagesAfter coming close in 1993 and '94, Johnson won his first Cy Young Award in 1995.
The Big Unit posted an 18-2 record with 294 strikeouts in 214 innings in 1995, and he was typically masterful in Seattle's 9-1 victory over California.

Johnson froze Tim Salmon on a backdoor slider for the final out, then threw his arms in the air and gazed skyward in celebration. He looked like a human version of the Space Needle. The Kingdome went wild in celebration, and it seemed as if half the city's police force escorted the Mariners to the airport for the flight to New York to begin the playoffs.

For the record, in his final six starts of 1995, Johnson threw 119, 122, 122, 127, 133 and 125 pitches. Talk about a workhorse: Johnson surpassed 140 pitches in four previous starts, and topped out with a staggering 158 in a win over Cleveland in July.

"When he had his game face on, there was nobody like him," says former Seattle bench coach John McLaren. "He had the heart of a lion. It wasn't as if you thought you had a chance to win that day. You knew you were going to win that day. That's how good he was."

The Big Surprise (Nov. 4, 2001)

It's no secret that Johnson and Curt Schilling weren't the best of friends during their time in Arizona. Schilling loved to express his opinions and seemed to crave publicity. Johnson could be surly and aloof, and spent most of his time in a cocoon.

But professional courtesy reigns supreme, and Schilling spoke for a lot of people after the 2001 World Series when he observed, "That relief appearance is everything you ever need to know about Randy Johnson."

A day after throwing seven innings and 104 pitches to beat the Yankees 15-2 in Game 6, Johnson jogged out of the bullpen to throw 17 pitches and record the final four outs in Arizona's series clincher. Johnson's valiant relief pitching set the stage for Luis Gonzalez's climactic single off Mariano Rivera in the ninth.

Johnson confided to outfielder Steve Finley before the game that he was ready to go, but it was natural to wonder how much he had left in the tank.

"It's all adrenaline," Johnson said amid the postgame celebration. "This is what we play for."

The Big "Poof" (March 24, 2001)

Johnson posted a 21-6 record in 2001, led the National League in strikeouts and ERA, captured the Cy Young Award and was named co-MVP of the World Series. But he was not a factor in Audubon Society Man of the Year balloting.

In perhaps the most bizarre baseball incident since Duane Kuiper went deep, Johnson threw a spring training fastball to San Francisco's Calvin Murray just as a dove was flying in front of home plate. The unfortunate bird went "poof," according to Murray, and disintegrated amid a cloud of feathers, but will be memorialized for eternity on YouTube.

Arizona manager Bob Brenly joked that Johnson might get arrested "for hunting dove out of season," but the predominant reaction was shock. The dove landed 10 feet behind home plate, and Giants second baseman Jeff Kent picked it up and jokingly pointed it at Johnson before carrying it into the dugout.

"I've never seen that before, and I'll probably never see that again," said Arizona catcher and master of the obvious Rod Barajas.

The Big 20 (May 8, 2001)

When Johnson struck out Deion Sanders and Juan Castro in the ninth inning of an Arizona-Cincinnati game in Phoenix, he joined Roger Clemens and Kerry Wood as the only pitchers to strike out 20 batters in nine innings.

Randy Johnson
AP Photo/Roy DabnerJohnson, at 38 years old, finished the 2001 season with 21 wins, 372 strikeouts and his fourth Cy Young.
Reds batters lined up to confirm that Johnson's stuff certainly sounded formidable.

"They told us to lay off his slider and hit his fastball, but, man, you couldn't tell the difference until it was on top of you, and then it was too late," said outfielder Alex Ochoa, who struck out three times. "He was throwing 97 mph fastballs and 88 mph sliders and all you could do was say, 'Oh, God.'"

Dayton Daily News reporter Hal McCoy, who had covered Tom Browning's perfect game and no-hitters by Tom Seaver and Rick Wise in his 29 years on the Reds beat, called Johnson's performance the best he had ever seen by a major league pitcher.

Arizona's Mark Grace, who played first base the night of the 20-strikeout game, had previously played first base for the Cubs the night that Wood struck out 20.

"I feel blessed to have seen this twice," Grace said. "When a guy is pitching like that, you put your glove on top of your head because you are not going to need it."

The Big Knock (Sept. 19, 2003)

Former Seattle infielder Jeff Huson once observed that the sight of Johnson running the bases was comparable to watching a baby giraffe take its first steps.

"They should show it on the Discovery Channel -- superimpose them both side by side," Huson said. "It would be great."

Johnson made life considerably easier on himself against Milwaukee's Doug Davis, when he enjoyed his first and only home run trot at age 39. Johnson drove a 2-0 fastball over the left-field fence, and returned to a barrage of back slaps and high-fives from teammates in the dugout.

"He puts the ball in play, but I didn't know he had pop," Davis told reporters after the game. "And I guarantee he didn't know it, either."

For the record, the homer came in Johnson's 437th big league at-bat, and pulled him within one of Sandy Koufax's career total of two.

The Big Apple debut (Jan. 10, 2005)

Johnson never feared the big stage, but his introverted and moody personality seemed like a bad fit for the incessant scrutiny of America's sports media capital.

This was confirmed before the blood work was even complete.

After the Yankees acquired Johnson from Arizona by trade in December 2004, the Big Unit only had to pass a physical exam to make the deal official. But first, he had to survive the walk down Madison Avenue without incident.

Randy Johnson
AP Photo/WCBS-TV, HOWelcome to the Big Apple: Johnson's run in New York began with a run-in with a TV crew on the streets of Manhattan.

Johnson was en route from the Four Seasons hotel to his meeting with Yankees doctors when a TV camera from a local news station appeared in his path. He was not pleased.

"Don't get in my face," Johnson told the cameraman, Vinny Everett. "I don't care who you are. Don't get in my face."

Johnson quickly apologized, citing the "overwhelming" events of the preceding days for putting him on edge. But the damage was done.

The New York Daily News ran a graphic with assorted Johnson temper tantrums and called it "Randy's Rap Sheet." Among other things, the paper dredged up his confrontation with former Seattle teammate David Segui over some loud music in the clubhouse, and recalled the incident in 1988 in which Johnson punched a wall and broke his hand while pitching Triple-A ball in Indianapolis.

Johnson went 34-19 in two seasons in New York, but posted an 0-1 record with a 6.92 ERA in three October appearances. In December 2006, he requested a trade to be closer to his home in Arizona after his brother died of a brain aneurysm. When the Yankees dealt Johnson to the Diamondbacks a month later, both parties were ready for a split.

The Big Mac Attack (June 24, 1997)

Johnson struck out 19 batters and didn't issue a walk in a 4-1 loss to Oakland, but that wasn't the main topic of conversation among fans leaving the Kingdome after the game. Most of the attention focused on a fifth-inning showdown between Johnson and his former University of Southern California teammate Mark McGwire.

With two out, Johnson threw a 97 mph fastball on a full count to McGwire. The ball left McGwire's bat at 105 mph and landed eight rows into the second deck in left-center field at the Kingdome. The distance was initially estimated at 538 feet, then amended to 474 feet.

Johnson had some fun with the encounter the next day, calling an impromptu "press conference" and wondering aloud if McGwire might have corked his bat. Johnson then produced a souvenir Kids Day bat with a wine cork glued to the top.

In hindsight, it's easy to dismiss McGwire's home run because of the subsequent steroid allegations against him. But the people in Seattle that day weren't thinking about chemical enhancement.

"When he hit that ball, it was surreal," says John McLaren, who was sitting in the Mariners' dugout beside manager Lou Piniella. "You went, 'God, did I just see that?'"

Johnson and the Mariners weren't the only ones in awe of McGwire's tape-measure shot. McGwire's fellow Bash Brother, Jose Canseco, gushed about his teammate's power.

"He's not human," Canseco told reporters. "He doesn't count. Check his blood. Mac's an alien from the future who's come back to show us how to play this game."

Honorable mentions

Owning Wade: In 1990, Johnson became the first left-handed pitcher to strike out perennial batting champion Wade Boggs three times in a game. "He's got a great fastball -- right up there with Dave Righetti and Dan Plesac,'' Boggs said after the game.

The out pitch: Johnson first referred to his lethal slider as "Mr. Snappy'' in a Major League Baseball commercial in 1995.

Comic relief: Johnson provided the money closing line in Tim Lincecum's entertaining MLB 2K9 commercial this spring. In the ad, Johnson approaches Lincecum in the Giants' clubhouse, acknowledges the apparently nude virtual Lincecum standing beside the 2008 Cy Young winner and observes, "He should put a towel on.'' Never has a 45-year-old deadpan sounded so good.

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

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer