Yanks crave Unit's ferociousness

Randy Johnson has a piercing edge to him that the Yankees hope will turn into great on-the-field success.

Originally Published: January 12, 2005
By Bob Klapisch | Special to ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Randy Johnson's hair was coiffed as tightly as one of his 90-mph sliders, the perfect finishing touch on the Day 1 wardrobe: impeccably-twirled tie, double-breasted suit, full apologies all around.

By the end of the afternoon, Johnson had morphed from tabloid hot-head -- "Big Jerk" is what the New York Post called him -- to corporate android. Ninety minutes with the press, and not a single controversy. On the scale from one-to-Derek Jeter, Johnson was a solid seven, even holding his own with David Letterman later that evening.

Randy Johnson
George's haul included a former Yankee-killer.

The Bombers considered all this a sweeping success, considering Johnson had shoved a cameraman on a Manhattan sidewalk 24 hours earlier. The Big Unit needed to heal his publicity-wounds in a hurry. After all, the Yankees are supposed to be billboards of professionalism. No names on the uniforms. No music in the clubhouse, no anti-social behavior -- ever.

So why did they acquire Johnson?

It sure wasn't for manners or a discourse on pitching. For that, they have Jeter and Mike Mussina. And anyone looking for a state of the Yankees address goes directly to Joe Torre's office.

Johnson was wearing pinstripes on Tuesday for one reason only. His fastball and his attitude, which are really the same thing.

Hearing him apologize over and over -- there were four separate mea culpas, in all -- was like watching a wild animal submit to its cage in the zoo.

Of course, Johnson's "no pictures" decree was wrong. It was small-time, small market. The Yankees now know what they've inherited -- a bully. But that doesn't mean they should re-program Johnson's anti-social gene. After all, they've seen what happens to nice guys in pennant races.

No one in that clubhouse was easier to like than Jose Contreras, who had the arm-strength and four-pitch arsenal of a Cy Young Award winner. But the man who was unafraid of Fidel Castro was somehow no match for Manny Ramirez. Javier Vazquez was just as soft. The right-hander had talent, but no heart, evidenced by his performance in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox.

From the moment Vazquez grooved that bases-loaded fastball to Johnny Damon in the second inning, the one which landed in the upper deck in right field, the Yankees craving for Johnson mushroomed.

It's safe to assume the Big Unit would've delivered that first heater somewhere near the forest growing on Damon's chin. While Johnson makes no guarantees that he can beat the Red Sox, he's obviously not sweating the coming wars at Fenway, either. After finishing off his apologies, he reverted to the language the Yankees should want to hear, saying, "I'm not afraid of any situation."

If they're smart, the Yankees will take that fearlessness in exchange for a three-year war with the press. What the Yankees need from Johnson is the intimidation factor they've been lacking since Roger Clemens split for Houston. While the Yankees' other starters command respect, no one is truly afraid of them. Not even Mariano Rivera is a sure thing at Fenway anymore.

But Johnson is nasty enough to want a one-on-one with Curt Schilling in October, the former teammate he can't stand. Too bad Unit wouldn't let himself admit it on Tuesday, though. Sadly, he wore a muzzle, insisting he and Schilling are simply "different."

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  • Maybe that'll change on Opening Day, when Johnson and Schilling will first collide as Eastern Division rivals. On the mound, liberated from his tie and jacket, Johnson will be in touch with his inner-beast that makes his fastball so dangerous.

    It's that cold stare, his long, aggressive delivery, the chaos his arms and legs create in his delivery, and the terrifying illusion that he's only a few feet away from the batter upon his release point.

    When Yankees GM Brian Cashman said, "if you could name one player who's been the biggest obstacle for us over the years, I'd say Randy Johnson."

    He was talking about Game 5 of the 1995 AL Division Series in Seattle. And Game 7 of the 2001 World Series in Arizona. Johnson wasn't just good, he was almost unhittable. The Yankees weren't just uncomfortable facing his 99-mph fastball, some of them were beaten before they stepped in the batter's box.

    Then, as now, Johnson was all about that old-school fury. Even today, at 41, he still lives in a different universe than most new millennium athletes. He is not pretty or smoothly-shaven. He is not funny. He fights teammates. And every fifth day, just like Clemens, Johnson reaches into the core of his being and turns into -- a jerk.

    "I don't hate anyone except for the day when I step between the lines," Johnson admitted. That's when he becomes focused -- no, infuriated that anyone would stand 60 feet, six inches away thinking they have a chance to catch up to his heat. Johnson eyeballs hitters the same way Barry Bonds cuts pitchers in two with his stare. And that's why Bonds is on his way to becoming the game's all-time home run champion, because he's matched his skill with that boundless arrogance.

    Johnson, on a similar path to greatness, has a chance to finish his career with 300 wins, and finish ahead of Clemens on the all-time strikeout list. But the Unit will get bogged down if he chooses politeness over ferocity. Before he throws that first pitch on April 3 possibly against Schilling, Johnson should look in the mirror and remember why his 99-mph fastball looks so much smaller than it already is.

    It's because he can be mean and anti-social enough to flip out on a cameraman doing his job.

    If Johnson was that angry about having his picture in the paper, imagine how he'll feel about the Red Sox this summer.

    Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

    Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.