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The Intimidator
Tom Verducci
June 26, 1995
More in control of his pitches and himself, Seattle's Randy Johnson still scares hitters
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June 26, 1995

The Intimidator

More in control of his pitches and himself, Seattle's Randy Johnson still scares hitters

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So crushed was Randy that he told his mother, Carol, "I don't know if I want to pitch anymore. I'm thinking of quitting." Randy was then a 49-48 career pitcher who had led the American League in walks three straight seasons, though he had finished strongly that year after an impromptu tutoring session from Ryan, then with the Texas Rangers, and the Ranger pitching coach at the time, Tom House. Most tellingly, House suggested Johnson land on the ball of his right foot—not the heel—when he delivered his pitches.

Carol advised him that he should keep pitching. Randy eventually agreed. He also became a practicing Christian and pledged 10% of his earnings to charity. He drew a cross and the word DAD on the palm of his glove and has glanced at the markings whenever he has needed strength on the mound. He has usually found it; Johnson won 19 games in 1993, struck out 308 batters and cut his walk rate from 6.16 per nine innings in 1992 to 3.49.

The following November he married Lisa—"only after I was convinced that she knew what she was getting into," he says. "You know, I'm like this troll living underneath the bridge." A month later he signed a four-year, $20.25 million contract.

"Yes, changing my mechanics was a key," Johnson says of his turnaround. "But that's just a small part of it. My heart got bigger. Determination can take you a long way. After my dad died I was convinced I could get through anything. I don't use the word pressure anymore. That's for what he went through. Life or death. I use the word challenge. And I'll never again say, 'I can't handle it.' I just dig down deeper.

"I mean, if you look at it, I was barely a .500 pitcher before my dad died and I got married and had a baby. In the last three years, after all of that, I'm 38-15. My wife and baby have brought me down to earth. I'm not as selfish as I used to be. Win or lose, I always have them to come home to."

His mature approach shows on the mound, where, he concedes, "I've toned down my mannerisms because guys thought I was showing them up." Whereas Johnson used to dismiss strikeout victims with a disdainful wave of his hand, now he pounds his glove into his chest. "That way," he says, "I'll retire with welts on my chest instead of bruising all those egos out there."

Moreover, Johnson rarely allows an umpire's call or an opponent's taunts to unravel him. He remembers Oakland A's manager Tony La Russa shouting at him from the dugout, "Stop your whining! Quit begging!" Such bench jockeying would turn Johnson into such a mental mess that, he says, "it was as if I was this California surfer dude who'd let you take advantage of him. People tried to rattle me, and it worked."

He knew, though, that he had turned that corner last year when he heard the voice of an old teammate, Dave Valle, shouting gleefully from the Boston dugout after Johnson had given up an ominous ninth-inning walk, "Here we go again!"

"I backed off the mound," Johnson says, "pounded myself in the chest with my glove and said, 'Not this time,' and closed the door. Since my dad died, I've become a warrior. That's how I think of myself."

Says Piniella, "Now when he's got a lead in the sixth or seventh inning, he really bears down. He feels it. He wants it." On June 5 Johnson set down the final 17 Baltimore Oriole hitters, including the last three by strikeouts. It was the first time since Sept. 18, 1993, that a starting pitcher had struck out the side in the ninth inning. Johnson finished with 12 punchouts that night, including four of rookie lefthanded hitter Curtis Goodwin. "He would come back to the dugout shaking his head and ask if he should look for a fastball or slider," says Oriole third baseman Jeff Manto. "I don't think Curtis wants to face him again."

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