Big Unit says he still has the stuff to dominate

Updated: February 18, 2007, 11:25 AM ET
Associated Press

TUCSON, Ariz. -- Randy Johnson made the familiar trek down Interstate 10 from his Paradise Valley home and found his name on the same spring training locker he occupied during the best seasons of his extraordinary career.

After two tumultuous years with the New York Yankees, the Big Unit is obviously comfortable with his return to Arizona. He is confident that his offseason back surgery will allow him to return to the mound as a strong starter, if not the dominant pitcher he was in his first stint with the Diamondbacks.

"I'm very optimistic that the tough part is behind me now," Johnson said Saturday. "It's just now getting out on the mound and proving to myself and everybody else, and then everything else will fall in its place."

While the rest of the team's pitchers and catchers worked out on minor league fields Saturday, Johnson played catch with Diamondbacks trainer Ken Crenshaw.

"I threw about 150 feet for about 90 pitches, then I worked out," Johnson said. "I've been riding the bike for about half an hour and feel really good. We'll just continue to stay on this schedule and progressively add things as my body allows it."

He said he probably could throw off the mound now, but is taking a cautious approach that would have him doing so sometime next week.

Johnson found only a few familiar faces from when he left the team following the 2004 season. Even the team colors have changed, from purple to "Sedona red."

"It's different," he said, "but if that's the only thing I have to worry about, then I'm going to be in great shape."

Arizona manager Bob Melvin said Johnson's appearance on the first day of workouts spoke volumes.

"First and foremost, he didn't even have to be here today," Melvin said. "He's still on a rehab schedule and was given the option to continue that and come down a little bit later, around the time he was going to throw his first bullpen. But he wanted to be here on Day 1, and I applaud that."

Speaking at a news conference for nearly a half-hour, Johnson said he pitched in pain throughout last season, even though he didn't complain publicly.

"That's just not me to go and say I'm hurting," he said, "because then you know what, it's a no-win situation. I would rather battle through it. After the things I've gone through in my life, that's the least I can do."

Prodded repeatedly about his often-rocky time with the Yankees, Johnson insisted, "I really enjoyed myself in New York."

He did, however, have a few sharp words for some of those who wrote negatively about him "and never bothered to come and introduce themselves."

"That's the one thing that didn't sit very well is, `Oh, he's surly' and all that," he said. "Well, you're damn right if you're going use me as a floor mat and not going to know me, then yeah. I don't want to sit down and give you my time if you have your mind made up of your perception of me."

Melvin doesn't expect Johnson to be ready until mid-to-late April. When he returns, the Big Unit said he has no problem pitching behind reigning NL Cy Young Award winner Brandon Webb.

Johnson won four of his five Cy Youngs with the Diamondbacks. He said he knows it's unrealistic to expect him to return to that dominating form at age 43.

"I don't think anybody in the game is going to strike out 300 again, but yet that's what people expect me to do," Johnson said. "I don't think people are going to dominate the way I did. Nobody's going to do that, let alone myself. But I will continue to say I can, because that's my motivating factor. I once did then, the bar's set there, so that's what I strive to do."

When Johnson was asked why he and Roger Clemens keep pitching at their age, he joked, "Is he coming back?"

"I think I could pitch a half-season," Johnson continued. "I don't think I'd even need surgery to do that."

Johnson will be 45 when his two-year contract with the Diamondbacks expires. Not many professional athletes would go through back surgery -- his second in a decade -- and come back to compete at his age.

"I think it's just determination," he said. "I could easily start considering retiring because I've won a World Series here and I've done a lot of nice individual accomplishments, and I don't need the money. But what I do need is that outlet to be competitive."

He is out to prove that, coming off back surgery, he still can succeed into his mid-40s.

"Eventually, everybody will be right,'' he said, "what they've been saying about me: `You know, he's old and can't do it anymore.' But if I went into the front office and said, `Would you take 34 victories from me over the next two years of my contract?' I think they'd be very happy with that.

"At age 45, when I'm done with this contract, forget who I am, just take my ability. I can still go out and pitch."


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press