Present at the creation
The author's brother had the best seat in the house as the Big Unit harnessed his talent
This was pre-Internet, pre-MLB On Demand -- even pre-Bottom Line.
Back in 1990, as I lived on the East Coast, it was tough to keep up with my brother, Seattle Mariners backup catcher Scott Bradley. When the M's played on the West Coast, the only ways to follow them were ESPN's updates at 28 minutes and 58 minutes past the hour and the quick hits on CNN Headline News, usually narrated by Van Earl Wright.
It was no easier the next morning. I would go around town looking for the USA Today with "Sports Final" stamped in the upper-left-hand corner, and even then it was 50-50 that the M's box score would make it into print.
But on the night of June 2, 1990, it wasn't so hard. Scott called me in the wee hours to wake me up with some news.
"I just caught a no-hitter!" he shouted into the phone. "Randy threw a no-hitter. I'm going to be on WFAN in 10 minutes. Gotta go."
"It was the command of the breaking ball that night," Scott, now the baseball coach at Princeton, said to me just the other day, reliving the moment 19 years later. "They had veteran hitters like Tony Phillips, Alan Trammell and Chet Lemon, and we were able to change pitching patterns on them. On fastball counts, 2-0 and 3-1, Randy was able to drop the slider in for a strike all night. He was also able to throw the slider for strike one, then run fastballs out of the zone that they would chase. The last out of the game was a strikeout of Mike Heath -- a fastball that I caught standing up. It was head-high, but Heath was so geared up, he swung anyway."
I've seen that final pitch a thousand times. Yet I've never seen the game in its entirety -- it wasn't on television. And for the under-30 crowd, that's probably hard to fathom.
It may also be hard for the under-30 crowd to fathom that, back in 1990, no one even imagined Johnson would go on to pitch until he was 45 and reach 300 career victories. Back then, the Big Unit was more a curiosity than a phenom. The Mariners acquired him (and two other pitchers) in the spring of 1989 when Seattle traded the face of its franchise, Mark Langston, to Montreal because the Mariners feared Langston would leave via free agency the following year.
When he came to Seattle, Johnson's claim to fame was that, at 6-foot-10, he was the tallest Major League player ever -- and that he could throw 100 mph. Problem was, he had little idea where the ball was going. A no-hitter was not out of the question because he did not give up many hits. But it was just as likely that Johnson would walk so many batters that he would lose the game anyway.
"Early on, it was the inconsistencies," Scott said. "His body would get ahead of his arm. When he would get wild, he'd fall off the mound. And everything was up and away to right-handed hitters. That was why left-handers did not want to face him, because that tendency scared them."
My brother -- allow me to brag here -- made a few keen observations about Johnson early on during his time with the Mariners. For one, he noticed Johnson did not like it when managers and pitching coaches treated him like a 100 mph-throwing freak, saying, "Just throw it over the plate." No, Johnson wanted to go over hitters and scouting reports like the rest of the staff. He wanted to execute a game plan. "From a mental standpoint," Scott says, "he didn't want to be a 6-10 thrower. He wanted to be a pitcher. He wanted the catcher to give him locations, in and out, not set up down the middle."
Scott realized the best way to get Wild Randy back in the zone, mechanically, was to bring him back to the slider. "His breaking ball became his command pitch," Scott said. "When he would get out of whack mechanically, as soon as you saw that release point go awry once or twice, I'd call for the slider. He never overthrew his slider. His breaking pitch became the way to get him back into a groove. And that became the time when he felt like he was really a pitcher, not just a thrower."
The slider had such a big break that few hitters wanted to swing at it, especially early in the count. Scott told me, "The most powerful feeling you had catching him was that you knew there were certain hitters, including great hitters like Wade Boggs, who couldn't even make contact against him. You lived with the walks because he gave up so few hits. Later on, when his walk totals dropped, it's like he invented the WHIP stat." In fact, my brother once told Johnson, "Do not worry about walks, because you get so many swings and misses and foul balls. Walks are going to happen, so don't worry about them."
I remember times when watching Scott catch Johnson was painful. One night, the A's stole eight bases against the Johnson-Bradley battery, and I'm not sure Scott was able to make a single throw. I remember games when Johnson couldn't throw a strike; it was agonizing to watch. But Scott never complained. "Randy was easy to catch," Scott says. "Because when he was wild, he was wild high in the zone, which is better than catching guys who are bouncing the ball."
However, not even my brother, who caught the Big Unit on that special summer night in 1990, knew that Johnson would turn into this immortal figure on the mound -- this future Hall of Famer. "None of us had any idea early on," he says. "There was so much going on in his delivery. And his personality was as inconsistent as his delivery. He would be mad some days, happy-go-lucky the next. But after his second or third full year, he became a real professional. He became very focused. It goes back to him wanting to be a pitcher, not a thrower. He started preparing during his days off. He watched hitters.
"When you combined that improved mentality with his natural ability, you started to see: Basically, the guy was unhittable."
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN Insider.
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