The bigger they are ...
Cardinals stand up to Big Unit in Division Series openerPosted: Wednesday October 02, 2002 4:07 AM
Jeff Pearlman, Sports Illustrated
PHOENIX -- When I was just a boy, my father gave me some bad advice about the bullies of Lakeview Elementary School. "If they come at you, there's one thing to do," he said. "Run."
For the longest time, this is what I did. I hid in the shadows and bathrooms; in the closets and -- when worst came to worst -- my locker.
Thing is, bullies become bullies by rep. If Butch Smith pounds on enough softies, the remaining ones cower. It is human nature.
There is a bully in baseball, and his name is Randy Johnson.
A left-handed starter for the world champion Arizona Diamondbacks, Johnson throws hard -- real hard. Johnson throws inside -- very inside. Johnson is big -- reeeaaaaalllly big. He is as much myth as man; a larger-than-large legend with the wingspan of a pterodactyl and the heat of a romance novel.
Once upon a time, when Johnson was an up-and-comer with Montreal in the late 1980s, opponents had sound reason to fear. Johnson would throw a beautiful 98-mph heater on the outside corner, then follow it up with an equally rapid (and unintentional) express train to the backstop. Or the dugout. Or the mascot's head. He was downright terrifying. A colorblind bull.
Nowadays, however, Johnson has complete control. He knows where every pitch is headed, and throws with the accuracy of an ace dartsman. As a result, he was 24-5 with a 2.32 ERA this season for Arizona. He is the best pitcher in baseball. A sure-shot Hall of Famer.
He is also a bully.
Johnson scowls and growls and does his best to look tough, and it works. One glance at Johnson peering out from behind his mitt -- eyes glowing like Freddy Krueger -- is enough to turn Mr. T into Mr. Wuss. People remember the old, wild Big Unit (paging John Kruk -- John Kruk anyone?) and they fear for their lives. They swing at pitches in the dirt. They try and hit the other way. The prey for ball four. Following Pop's advice, they don't stand up for themselves, they run.
In St. Louis' 12-2 squashing of the Diamondbacks in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, the Cardinals did not run or hide or shake in their cleats. They did what any self-respecting World Series contender would do. They looked the bully in the eye, laughed at his scowl and -- without allowing him so much of a jab -- punched him smack in the jaw.
The bully did his thing from the get-go. His first pitch of the game was a 97-mph inside fastball to Fernando Vina. His second was a 98-mph strike. Although Vina reached base on shortstop Tony Womack's throwing error, the bully was at his wicked best. Eli Marrero, the No. 2 hitter for St. Louis, innocently flew out to left, and center fielder Jim Edmonds was next.
Normally, Johnson eats men like Edmonds for brunch. The Cardinals star is a smooth, graceful player -- the type of pretty boy who melts under a bully's glare. Who meekly watches the ball pass by. Whose knees shake. Who -- SMACK!
Edmonds turned on Johnson's third pitch -- a heater over the heart of the plate -- and sent it 424 feet into the right-field stands. This was not simply a deep shot in a big game. It was a message. THE message. I will not be intimidated. We will not be intimidated.
Suddenly Johnson, one-half of the Diamondbacks' invincible duo, seemed to shrink from King Kong to Emmanuel Lewis. He watched Edmonds' ball soar far, far away, cursed loudly and, three innings later -- SMACK! -- got lit up again. This time it was third baseman Scott Rolen, who took a slider that didn't slide and sent it way back into the center field abyss. The Cardinals suddenly led 4-2, and momentum was theirs.
"Johnson is human, just like we are," said Marrero, who started in right field. "Maybe he's intimidating because he has good stuff, but we don't get intimidated. We didn't try to do too much with him -- just take his pitches and do our best. It worked."
When Johnson was removed from the game after six innings, his line read like a Glendon Rusch biopic: 10 hits, six runs, two walks and only four strikeouts. His ERA? A gawky 7.50.
The next time he faces St. Louis, in Game 4 at Busch Stadium, he will still be tall and strong and tough to hit. But to the Cardinals, the bully has disappeared.
Dad was wrong.