Holman, who came up through the Expo organization with him, predicts that with a little more control Johnson will become more than a novelty act. "He can be as dominant as Roger Clemens.
"What I wouldn't do to have his arm for one game," says Holman. "I'd spend that game scaring people to death. Such explosion, such movement. As a lefthanded hitter, you couldn't pay me enough to stand in there against him." Bradley says he never saw batters bail out on Johnson, "but they do become tentative. Let's face it, he's not a comfortable at bat."
But most of the wildness comes from being 6'10", the tallest player in baseball ever, as Johnson is all too often reminded. Being 6'10" is both a gift and a curse. Johnson understands his arm leverage is what allows him to throw a baseball so hard. But he also understands that with all his dimensions so exaggerated, anything short of perfection in his mechanics can result in a fastball that sails clear off toward the horizon. "When you're 6'3"," he says, "you don't have to be as consistent in your release and arm angle."
Pitching coach Dan Warthen worked with him this spring on his delivery, and the results have been encouraging. Through his 29? innings this young season, he has given up only 10 walks.
"He could be great," Warthen says. But he'll always be 6'10", and that is a high price to pay for greatness, at least if you're Randy Johnson, "it's amazing how I can walk down the street or in a mall, and the people just stare at me," Johnson says. "Sometimes people come up to me and ask me if I play basketball. Usually I'll tell them yes, I'm Kurt Rambis. Or else I'll say I'm Tom Chambers. And, yes, they really do ask about the weather up there."
Johnson is eerily sensitive to the attention his height earns him, constantly feeling singled out among his peers because of the contrast. "My first start in the major leagues was at Pittsburgh," he says, "and a camera crew asked me to pose next to one of their players, somebody real short. Look in Baseball America, and there's a picture of me and Mel Houston, all 5'8" of him."
In fact, it seems to be his entire identity. On Opening Day this year, when he was matched against Nolan Ryan, USA Today twice referred to his height. On his best days, it's either Randy Johnson, 6'10", or Randy Johnson, tallest man ever to play in the major leagues. "When I got my no-hitter? Tallest pitcher to throw a no-hitter."
Johnson is not embittered by that, just rueful. He wishes that when he got his first major league uniform they didn't have to stitch two pairs of pants together. He wishes people didn't stare at him. "It's like I'm a freak, a sideshow act. I suppose it's not rude to ask me how tall I am; people just want to know. But if you were 300 pounds and people kept asking how much you weighed, would you like it?"
Can he be serious? Is this guy in the Conehead really so tortured? "Listen, when I go out on the mound in another city—and this probably sounds flaky—I hear all these voices, this muttering in the back of my head. I don't hear what they're saying, I don't hear them clearly. But it seems to me that the people are talking about what a freak I am, saying stuff about how tall I am. I often wonder what I do look like. Is there something wrong with me? I'd like to leave my body and see if I'm really that tall. Am I actually head and shoulders above everybody?"
Johnson shrugs as he tells you this, as if it really is beyond anybody else's understanding. He will not get any shorter, so he tries to deal with it. On the whole, he admits, there's been more upside than down to being 6'10". He probably wouldn't be making $1.3 million, he probably wouldn't be on the cusp of Ryan-like achievements if he were 5'8". Still, it is interesting that away from baseball he tends to disappear behind instruments.