Commentary

Big Unit could be big help with Giants

Johnson wants to win in San Francisco, also willing to mentor new teammates

Originally Published: February 25, 2009
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Randy JohnsonAP Photo/Eric RisbergRandy Johnson needs just five more wins to reach 300 for his career.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- A comprehensive scouting report on Giants pitcher Matt Cain should make reference to his sinking fastball, power curve, meager run support and buzzard luck. Considering how the past two seasons have gone, it's a miracle that a safe hasn't crash-landed on Cain's head.

Cain has a better ERA than Carlos Zambrano and A.J. Burnett since Opening Day of 2007, and a 15-30 won-loss record to show for it. He has received "hang in theres" from the manager, the pitching coach, his teammates and the clubhouse attendants.

But the pep talk understandably carries more weight when it's delivered by a 6-foot-10 five-time Cy Young Award winner and future Hall of Famer.

Randy Johnson, the newest member of the San Francisco rotation, has been there and done that. During an agonizing stretch with Arizona in 1999, Johnson posted a 1.41 ERA and struck out 54 batters in 32 innings. But the Diamondbacks were shut out four straight times, and Johnson went 0-4. He was only too happy to share that experience with Cain.

"You can be frustrated about that stuff, but like I told him the other day, 'You've got to battle,'" Johnson said. "One day you have to wake up and say, 'You know what? I've been pitching good, but I'm going to pitch a little bit better today. And we're going to win this game no matter what I have to go through.'"

The Giants were confident they landed a bargain when they signed Johnson, 45, to a one-year, $8 million contract in December. Johnson ranked fifth among National League starters with a 2.41 ERA after the All-Star break, so if his cranky back holds up he should be a huge addition to the San Francisco staff. With 295 career victories, he's also a gate attraction waiting to happen.

It's the fringe benefits that provide a twist to the story. Can you wrap your brain around the concept of the Big Unit as a veteran mentor?

For all the adjectives used to describe Johnson through the years, "nurturing" didn't make the list. The moody persona and competitive scowl that scared the daylights out of John Kruk and Larry Walker prompted numerous teammates to tread lightly around him in the clubhouse.

"He looks mad as hell out there, man," Giants pitcher Noah Lowry said. "He intimidates people. Just ask hitters. They sure don't like it."

[+] EnlargeMatt Cain
AP Photo/Eric RisbergMatt Cain has not been shy about asking new teammate Randy Johnson for advice.

Johnson, by his own admission, was so immersed in each start throughout the years that he never had time to stop and smell the liniment. But he's coming out of his shell, in part, because he knows that time is fleeting. Contemporaries Mike Mussina and Greg Maddux retired during the offseason, Curt Schilling is a full-time blogger and media gadfly and Pedro Martinez might soon be finished if he can't find a job.

Johnson also seems to feel a sense of obligation to pass along the knowledge that he has accrued, in much the same way that Nolan Ryan and Tom House influenced him in the early 1990s. And the kids haven't hesitated to tap into his insights.

"I kind of wear him out about the same things all the time," Cain said. "Like different ways to set up guys, or the way he holds his split-changeup, or different ideas on how to get hitters off balance."

In his obsessive pursuit of excellence, Johnson has been a self-improvement buff and creative thinker. He once sought guidance from the Porsche-Le Mans race team on how it used hyperbaric chambers to aid in drivers' recoveries during 24-hour competitions, and wondered whether that technique might translate to baseball. If eating right or thinking a certain way could help him win games, he was willing to try.

"I was inquisitive about all the different aspects of the game," Johnson said. "How could I recover between innings, so that when I went out there for the eighth inning, I could feel as good as I did in the fifth? Hydration. Nutrition. My weight-room workout and cardiovascular routine. How to play catch the right way, or how to set up a hitter.

"I don't know if a young kid comprehends those things. If you have some early success and make a lot of money, it's easy to think, 'Hey, I didn't learn that stuff in little league or high school or college or the minor leagues. Why do I need to learn it now?'"

Johnson will never be Mr. Congeniality, so don't expect him to strain his sacroiliac taking part in teammate Aaron Rowand's weekly bowling excursions. But he has spent enough time mingling in the clubhouse this spring to let the young players know he's a veteran they can look up to, both literally and figuratively.

Giants second baseman Kevin Frandsen comes from San Jose, while Johnson hails from the town of Walnut Creek, so they've compared notes on their northern California upbringings. Frandsen, who was in the lineup for Barry Bonds' 715th and 756th home runs and helped Omar Vizquel turn his record-setting 1,591st double play, relishes the thought of taking part in Johnson's 300th win.

"You know what's awesome with him?" Frandsen said. "When he talks to you, it doesn't matter how young you are or how many years you have in the league. He stares you right in the eye, and he talks to you."

Lowry, who gave up his No. 51 jersey this winter to accommodate Johnson, was impressed when the Big Unit dropped by his locker this week, expressed his thanks and asked whether a token of appreciation might be in order.

"I was thinking about getting a piece of paper and saying, 'Maybe a house on an acre in Scottsdale,' just to get a reaction out of him," Lowry said, laughing.

Then Lowry thought better of the levity. A show of gratitude from a first-ballot Hall of Famer was plenty.

For so many years in San Francisco, the focus was on Bonds and nothing more. Last year marked the transition to life without Barry, and now the story line revolves almost exclusively around pitching. With no discernible upgrades to an offense that ranked 29th in the majors in runs, the Giants still could make some noise in the NL West because of their pitching staff. Johnson slots nicely into a rotation that includes 2008 Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum, Cain and Barry Zito, with Jonathan Sanchez and Lowry competing for the fifth spot.

Johnson made his priorities clear during his introductory news conference, when he said he's not entering this season with the goal of winning five games. In his mind, 300 is less a destination than a celebratory milestone on the way to 305, 310 or 315.

En Español
Read Jerry Crasnick's story in Spanish on ESPNdeportes.com.

Multiple back surgeries and 4,039 career innings haven't put a crimp in Johnson's drive. Teammates and opponents tend to dwell less on his velocity than the emotion he invests into every pitch. It was evident early in camp, when several San Francisco hitters stood in the box with bats on their shoulders and watched balls go during a routine they call "tracking."

Johnson, agitated by the lack of action, vented to reporters after batting practice.

"Swing the stinkin' bat," he said.

Said Rowand, "Randy isn't just trying to get you out. He's trying to prove a point with every pitch he throws."

When Johnson gives his Hall of Fame speech in 2015 or thereabouts, he'll reflect on his father's death on Christmas Day of 1992 as a watershed event in his life and baseball career. That's when he determined greatness could be achieved only one painstaking outing at a time.

"You have to find something inside of you that makes you feel like, 'Hey, this could be my last game ever,'" Johnson said. "It's kind of like when Joe DiMaggio said, 'I never know who's going to be at the ballpark for the first or last time, so I have to do my best, because I wouldn't want him to see anything less.'"

Johnson certainly knows his history, and he'll try to make a little more this summer. Which starting pitcher will carry the load for the 2009 Giants? If the band sounds good, no one will care whether it's Grandpa or one of the kids singing lead vocals.

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