Ever since Scott Bradley took the head baseball job at Princeton, his players have been asking him about Randy Johnson. They all know that Bradley was Johnson's personal catcher with the Mariners for more than 2½ seasons, that he caught Johnson's no-hitter in 1990 and that the two men have remained in touch with one another since Bradley retired 12 years ago.
So after Johnson's perfect game Tuesday night, there were no new questions for the coach.
"I have held Randy out as an example for what drive, determination and dogged preparation can accomplish," says Bradley, whose team won the Ivy League title, is heading to the NCAA regionals for the third straight year and happens to have two players who are expected to go high in next month's baseball draft.
"Other than what incredible stuff he had that night and the fact that no one had a chance against him, what struck me watching the game was thinking about where he's been and watching what quiet confidence he had on the mound," says Bradley. "I felt very proud for Randy. He's worked very hard for what he's accomplished. While I genuinely liked him, I don't think I ever would have believed he'd become what he's become, as a Hall of Fame pitcher and as a person."
Some of us saw Randy Johnson pitch in Palmer, Alaska, in 1983, when he was 19, a sunflower and as gawky a thrower as imaginable. Bradley first caught him after Johnson was traded by the Expos to the Mariners in May, 1989, when Montreal was trying to win its first pennant and gave up Johnson and two other very promising prospects (Brian Holman, Gene Harris) for Mark Langston.
"He threw very hard," says Bradley, "but he was very wild and inconsistent. He'd launch balls up on the backstop, I guess sometimes for effect. Sometimes when he'd get to 3-and-0 he'd just fling the ball towards the plate, or the batter. He didn't have much confidence. He really was pretty insecure. So to see him now, so quietly confident and so remarkably under control and able to throw both his fastball and his slider for strike after strike is something that never fails to amaze me."
Bradley believes that one of the driving forces in this fiercely driven man is "his genuine love of the game and respect for those who played it. Randy is very aware of his place in history. [One ex-teammate marvels that Johnson is an expert on Kid Nichols.] He studies it, he appreciates it. Every time he's won the Cy Young he comes to New York to the writers' dinner to receive it. A lot of players blow those things off after they've won one or two. Not Randy. He and Lisa always come to the city, and Mary [Bradley's wife] and I always go in for a night with them. What impresses me most is how respectful and reverent he is to the players who played before him, and he is almost in awe of them. Just about every year he gets voted the Warren Spahn Award, and every time he goes to Oklahoma to receive it out of respect for Spahn and out of a sincere appreciation for the recognition.
"We all talk about having respect for the game," says Bradley. "That respect is a driving force for Randy Johnson."
In those 1990-92 seasons, Johnson was 39-35. He led the league in bases on balls all three years. He also went from 194 to 228 to a league-leading 241 strikeouts, and he was on his way to his 1995 Cy Young Award, which was a stepping stone to four straight Cy Youngs in Arizona beginning with 1999, not to mention six postseason wins that led to a world championship in 2001.
"Randy became driven," says Bradley. "When the Diamondbacks are in Philadelphia and New York, I know the only day that's good to have lunch with him is the day after he pitches. Then, he's relaxed. By the next day he's preparing himself for his next start, and if you try to hold a conversation, he's distracted because he's already at work. He's as prepared as anyone in the game; he seldom reveals that side of him, however. We all know how hard he works physically, and every off-season he dedicates himself to improving aspects of his game."
In the winter after his fourth Cy Young Award, he worked with Olympic endurance specialists, among others.
"If you look at the three great stars in their 40s who have all created legends after the age of 35 -- Johnson, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds -- they all spend their entire lives trying to get better," says Bradley. "What better examples do I need for my players."
One of those Princeton players to whom Bradley passes on the mental and physical work ethic of Randy Johnson is B.J. Szymanski. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound switch-hitter is an NFL prospect at wide receiver, but he had such a breakout season this spring that he seems a certain first-round pick in baseball's amateur draft, perhaps as high as eighth to the Orioles.
Szymanski went from Wichita Falls, Texas, home of John G. Tower and Mia Hamm, to Princeton to play football, but became increasing enamored with baseball. Early this season, with dozens of scouts in to watch Old Dominion's Justin Verlander, Szymanski crushed a 97-mph fastball for a home run. Less than three weeks before the draft, the Princeton center fielder is rated as the college player with the most power and the best tools.
"B.J. isn't a football tools guy playing baseball," says Bradley. "He has extraordinary baseball instincts. He has rare pitch recognition; he takes pitches from guys like Verlander and VCU's Justin Orenduff that I couldn't believe. He has effortless bat speed. He has a chance to be something special."
Another extremely talented Tiger is Ross Ohlendorf. From Austin, Texas, and recommended by his high school coach, Keith Moreland, Ohlendorf "hasn't pitched a lot of innings," says Bradley, "but he can run it up there in the mid-90s. If he gets with the right organization with the right pitching coach, in two years he could be Troy Percival."
Bradley expects outfielder Will Venable -- a basketball player and son of former major leaguer Max Venable -- to be drafted, as well as catcher Tim Lahey, a strong receiver of whom one scout says, "He's worth taking because in 15 years you'll either have your big league manager or orthopedic surgeon."
Bradley has had recent high draft picks. The Reds selected pitcher Thomas Pauley in the second round last June. Three years ago 6-foot-10 pitcher Chris Young was drafted in the third round by Pittsburgh, and he's now in Double-A with the Rangers.
When Szymanski, Ohlendorf, Lahey and Venable venture into the professional baseball world, they will have been prepared by their coach's library of stories about those who succeeded and those who failed. In Scott Bradley's eyes, there's no better example than Randy Johnson of someone who overcame a complicated web of obstacles to become a certain Hall of Famer and arguably one of the greatest left-handed pitchers who ever lived.
Tuesday night was simply a confirmation of where Johnson's been, and where he's gone, or still going.