SI Vault
 
PICTURE PERFECT PITCHER
Richard Hoffer
May 04, 1992
Randy Johnson, the Seattle Mariners' 6'10" southpaw, is one of baseball's most explosive—and eccentric—moundsmen
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
May 04, 1992

Picture Perfect Pitcher

Randy Johnson, the Seattle Mariners' 6'10" southpaw, is one of baseball's most explosive—and eccentric—moundsmen

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Say you're out on the streets, it's 3 a.m., and you turn a corner and stumble into Randy Johnson. He's 6'10", totally disheveled, hair down to here, the sounds of Queensryche exploding in his head. You can just about hear them yourself. His eyes look a little jittery; he's altogether too alert for these circumstances. Say this does happen to you—and it very well could if you're nocturnal and live in an American League city—what do you do? Suggestion: Smile. Let Johnson set up his camera and tripod, snap off a few frames and allow him to disappear into the night vapors. No harm will come to you.

And by the way, you've just met baseball's most explosive and oddest pitcher, quite possibly this generation's Nolan Ryan or its Dizzy Dean. He's perfectly benign, but goofy beyond any explanation. Neither being from California nor throwing lefthanded can account for the psychedelia of his personality. His mind is a virtual buffet. One day he's wearing a Conehead in the Seattle Mariners' dugout, the next he's shrinking from attention, tortured by his visibility. One morning he's pounding his skins to the tune of some Rush song, then throwing the ball 98 mph in the afternoon. Or he's inciting some clubhouse riot with typically inappropriate behavior, like when he poured a gallon of milk over teammate Jay Buhner's head to celebrate a 12-game Mariners losing streak. Or, away from that commotion, vanishing into a big city's solitude with nothing but his camera so that he can continue his work on a picture calendar that will one day benefit the homeless.

If you do run into him at 3 a.m., you might think to engage him in conversation, try making sense of him. It would be pleasant work. Johnson can talk rock 'n' roll or world politics, your pick. If it's baseball you want to discuss, he can talk about the no-hitter he pitched in 1990 against the Detroit Tigers with the same good-humored detachment ("Not a great no-hitter, but a no-hitter") he reserves for the 10 walks he gave up in four innings at Milwaukee in 1991 ("I was melting out there"). Despite his appearance and his game-day scowl, this is a most congenial man. But if you do find yourself in a 3 a.m. t�te-�-t�te, and the talk veers—as it certainly will, to the voices in the back of Johnson's head—well, there's no reason to run, but maybe it is time to excuse yourself and move along. Anyway, he's got other pictures to shoot.

Happily, if a one-man carnival of confusion is your cup of herbal tea, you don't need to lurk about Seattle's waterfront in the predawn hours to catch Johnson's act. He's the top starter for the Mariners, an All-Star two years ago, a spinner of strikeouts and low-hit games, all in all one of baseball's burgeoning talents. He's a popular draw every fifth day, when he pitches, for sure, but a work of entertainment even on days he doesn't. Mariners fans know by now to keep their eye on Johnson or, as he is known locally, the Big Unit, every minute of the game. He appears to be waving to the crowd when...a fake arm flies out of his sleeve. Or a ball rolls lazily across the dugout roof when...he snatches it back by its invisible thread. Or he is enjoying some rightful downtime on the bench, sipping a cold beverage through a straw that...circulates through eyeglasses.

About this clowning, which becomes lore faster than, say, his striking out Wade Boggs three times in one game, which he did in 1990: The testimony suggests that none of this is done just to get attention. It's likely that, having breakfast alone in his kitchen, he drinks his juice from a dribble glass. "That's just Randy," says Rod Dedeaux, who was his coach at Southern Cal. "Everything he does is out of exuberance. He was never putting on a show. He'd come as close to talking to a baseball as you could without being Mark Fidrych, but I never thought it was an act." Of course, Dedeaux has a high tolerance for the bizarre. "Remember, I also had Bill Lee, and I understood him, too."

Nor can his teammates distinguish Johnson's pranks from his everyday behavior. "I mean, first day he's here," says Buhner, his best buddy, "he's got that yellow police barricade tape all around his locker. That was the first day." Second day it was time for that old clubhouse comedy standby—frozen underwear. "Unit's not the kind of guy you turn your back on," says Buhner, who was his roommate until bailing out on him this year. Say, Jay, don't those shorts seem a little stiff?

Wacky on the bench ("I think he spends too much time with nothing to do," says his mother, Carol), wacky in the clubhouse. Is he wacky on the mound, too? As a matter of fact, he's wacky the entire day when he pitches, just a different kind of wacky. His goofiness disguises a competitive fire that could warm your bones in the upper deck during a night game in April. Everybody leaves him alone the days he pitches. He'll rise at 9 a.m., go to IHOP for a stack of pancakes, read everything but the sports pages, go home, watch TV, play his drums for an hour, then go to the park, whereupon, on a maple-syrup high, he'll do something memorable, one way or another. "It's a Jekyll-Hyde thing," he suggests.

It used to be much worse. When he was a prospect in the Montreal Expo organization, there was something called The Randy Johnson Rule. The front-office guys had come to see him pitch at Indianapolis in 1988, the idea being that they were going to bring him up to the big leagues. But on the very day of the visit, Johnson took a line drive off his left wrist, figured his career might be over and punched out a plywood bat rack with his right hand, breaking both hand and rack, and was out six weeks. Thereafter, if anybody in the Montreal organization did something as foolish to his own body, he was liable for a Randy Johnson fine. Now, much more mature at 28, Johnson is less a danger to furnishings, and there is renewed talk of his vast potential. He is 3-0, on track to surpass his best season—14-11 with the Mariners in 1990—and there is even hope that this will be the year his talent transforms itself into 20 victories. If he can just open his delivery, slow it down....

Historically he's either overpowering and unhittable or overpowering and wild. But at least he's always overpowering. There is nothing in baseball so tantalizing as that. "Every time he goes out there," says catcher Scott Bradley, who was released by Seattle in the spring, "he has a chance to throw a no-hitter."

Johnson was second in the American League the last two seasons in batting-average-against and second in strikeouts last year. Yet because he was first both seasons in walks, his ERA crept closer to 4.00 than 3.00, and his winning percentage hovered around .500. When he is good, he is very good. When he's bad, he's awful. It's all great theater. "There's nothing like watching him walk the bases full and then punch out the side," says teammate and fellow pitcher Brian Holman.

Continue Story
1 2 3