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August 31, 1998
Randy Johnson's MoveHe Got His Groove Back
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August 31, 1998


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Wins in Majors

Top 10s

Jack Nicklaus




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Arnold Palmer




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Gary Player




Tom Watson




Randy Johnson's Move
He Got His Groove Back

Randy Johnson had the Chicago Cubs flailing away last Saturday, giving up only two hits in seven innings as the Houston Astros all but iced the National League Central race. The win was Johnson's fourth, against one loss, since his arrival in Houston three weeks before from the Seattle Mariners. With his history of back problems there is the question of how much longer he can remain a consistent power pitcher, but the 34-year-old lefthander has appeared as indomitable as ever in an Astros uniform.

It's hard not to like someone who looks like the product of an unholy union between Medusa and Big Bird, but Johnson's resurgence must be considered in juxtaposition with the first four months of the season, the end of his mostly brilliant 9½-year career as a Mariner. In the last year of a four-year, $20 million contract, Johnson was upset that Seattle management would not commit to another long-term deal, at nearly double his current salary. Though he spun a couple of gems, including an 11-strikeout one-hitter against the Twins on July 16, he sometimes looked indifferent on the mound and sometimes sulked off it. His record reflected his funk: 9-10, 4.33 ERA in 23 starts.

Lee Pelekoudas, the Mariners' vice president of baseball administration, last week raised an eyebrow over Johnson's success in Houston. "It's amazing to see that someone's performance can turn around so abruptly as Randy's has. It makes you wish he had shown the same intensity and drive when he was with us that he is showing now."

Pelekoudas stopped short of saying Johnson dogged it in Latte Land. A more valid theory is that Johnson let his emotional volatility keep him from performing up to his overpowering standards. He felt that Mariners management did not appreciate how much of himself he had given up during his 1995 Cy Young season in which, arguably, he was responsible for generating the fan enthusiasm that kept what had been an undersupported franchise in Seattle.

Well, enjoy yourself in September, Randy, and perhaps even well into October. Your old fans back in Seattle must relish seeing you go after hitters again the way you did in 1995. They just wish they had seen a little more of it in '98.

Baseball and TV
Out of the Lineup

Never mind that little home run thing going on between McGwire and Sammy Sosa. The hottest battle these days is between Major League Baseball and ESPN. They are at odds over three Sunday-night games (San Francisco Giants at Los Angeles Dodgers on Sept. 6, St. Louis Cardinals at Houston Astros on Sept. 13 and New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles on Sept. 20) that the network summarily moved from ESPN to ESPN2 to make way for three NFL games. Infuriated, baseball yanked the games from the Deuce (which reaches only 60 million households compared with ESPN's 74 million) and gave the rights back to the teams to sell locally, a move that ESPN is contesting.

There's a clause in ESPN's five-year, $455 million deal with baseball allowing it to preempt up to 10 games per season for events of "significant viewer interest." ESPN points to the fact that NFL games, even early season ho-hummers, routinely fetch higher ratings than baseball games. In four head-to-head Sunday nights last year, for example, NFL games on TNT drew a 9.1 while baseball games on ESPN drew a 1.7. "Anyone would say those ratings constitute 'significant viewer interest,' " says Mike Soltys, ESPN's director of communications.

Baseball argues that its contract with ESPN gives it the power to reject the proposed preemption of any game. ESPN hangs its argument on another clause that says preemption approval can't be "unreasonably withheld." Above all, baseball feels abandoned and insulted by a partner. "We've worked long and hard to rebuild the game," says Paul Beeston, baseball's chief operating officer. "We think September and October is our time, baseball at its best. It hurts that ESPN thinks otherwise."

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