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Money Pitchers
Richard Hoffer
April 12, 1999
Randy Johnson of the Diamondbacks and Kevin Brown of the Dodgers, two fireballers worth $157 million combined, went wallet-to-wallet on Opening Day in LA, but it was the hitters who cashed in Money Pitchers
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April 12, 1999

Money Pitchers

Randy Johnson of the Diamondbacks and Kevin Brown of the Dodgers, two fireballers worth $157 million combined, went wallet-to-wallet on Opening Day in LA, but it was the hitters who cashed in Money Pitchers

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So this is what money looks like. Real money. Except for those cheesy casino exhibits—$1 MILLION IN BILLS! PINKER-TONS AT THE READY!—this was our best chance to see a fortune up close. Imagine: $157 million on one mound. A nation gawked.

How else to explain the interest in Monday's National League opener, a nonrivalry game between the host Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks? It was more a payroll event than a baseball game You had the Diamondbacks' Randy Johnson on the one hand (left) and the Dodgers Kevin Brown on the other (right). Good pitchers, sure, but hardly so galvanizing man-to-man that their matchup should have sold out Dodger Stadium in less than two days.

More likely their contracts did it. The offseason rehash of their free-agency glory, the sheer titillation of their enormous salaries and rock-star perks drew attention well past what their ERAs could ever attract. Is it toe cynical to suggest that this otherwise routine opener became the most important season debut of the week because it featured baseball's first $100 million man against a $50 million man? "Probably not," L.A general manager Kevin Malone said before the game. Malone, the guy who invested $105 million over seven years in the prover if nondescript Brown (and who had angled for Johnson until the Diamondbacks secured him for $52 million over four seasons) didn't seem at all offended by the idea that purchasing power somehow piqued fan interest. "There is the economic situation," he said, his voice trailing off as he watched his stands fill on a weekday afternoon. "The dollars and so forth."

But if the fans came for the contracts, they stayed for the pitching. It was impossible to preview this game without resorting to the language of accounting, such is our obsession with high salaries (not to mention such perks as Brown's free use of a private jet 12 times a year). But once the game began, under Los Angeles's typically blue skies, there was no longer a sense of monetary sums being tallied. Shortly after the national anthem this business-proposition-as-entertainment degenerated into a pitchers' duel.

Then it degenerated a little further into just the kind of baseball this sort of spending was supposed to correct. Before the afternoon was over, 12 pitchers (some of whom were making substantially less than even $5 million a year) had been paraded in front of the crowd of 53,109, and they had been rocked for six home runs. Isn't that about where we left off last season, when sluggers were lighting up the part-time players? Spend all the money you want, or can, on pitching, and this is how it ends: Dodgers rightfielder Raul Mondesi, having tied the game in the ninth with a three-run homer, won it in the 11th with a two-run shot. An 8-6 victory. So now good hitting beats good pitching.

The pricey pitching duel lasted all of five innings, after which the costlier of the two hurlers, having been blasted for a highly uncharacteristic three homers, was run out. Among Brown's more interesting statistics (not as interesting as his $4,000 a pitch on Monday) is his third-place standing among active pitchers for fewest homers allowed (1,000 career innings minimum). Last season with the San Diego Padres he gave up just eight. After the third one on Monday, a three-run job by second baseman Jay Bell in the sixth that kept drifting until it just cleared the leftfield fence—"I thought sacrifice fly," said Brown—it became necessary to question other relevant numbers.

While it may take 161 games (or more) before it's possible to say that anybody but the fans got their money's worth, it's never too soon to debate which team made the better investment. After the opener you'd have to like Arizona's plunge; Johnson, after all, lasted seven innings, giving up just five hits and two runs while striking out nine, and his team is only on the hook for four seasons. However, both pitchers advised us to hold off on a final accounting. Brown conceded that he'd made some poor pitches and that "I'd have booed myself," but promised he'd be back for a second start. Johnson, who walked six batters, likewise allowed that he could do better. "I'm not happy with how I pitched," he said. "I'm my own worst enemy."

Beyond the gate-crashing appeal of Monday's matchup, which may not be reproduced more than once again this season, it's difficult to find the economic sense in paying either man as much money as these clubs did. And it goes beyond the pitchers' performances. Brown doesn't have the charisma to transform himself, at this late stage in his life, into baseball's marquee player. His performance of late—particularly over the last three seasons, when he went 51-26 with a 2.33 ERA and led two teams (the Florida Marlins and then the Padres) to the World Series—has certainly established his credentials as one of the best pitchers in the game—but not the best. No matter that his fastball still registers in the 90s; it's difficult to justify a huge seven-year contract for a 34-year-old guy. Remember: Don Drys-dale was retired by then.

Johnson, whose 6'10" frame and lanky hair make him a disturbing sight for batters and fans alike, does have charisma. People come to see his fastball. But the Big Unit, despite his dominating finish with the Houston Astros last season (after a desultory stretch with the Seattle Mariners, Johnson went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA for Houston), is getting as long in the tooth as he is above the ears. He's 35. Sandy Koufax had been retired for five years at that age.

If it does turn out that fans treasure pitching above hitting, which hasn't been their history, these clubs figure to be blessed. As it is, the fans only want these two guys to stay durable, win their allotment and grow old in their respective uniforms. Malone, though appreciative of Monday's fan influx, wants nothing more flamboyant from Brown than "240 innings, 15 to 20 victories." The Diamondbacks also hope for constancy. "The thing about guys like Kevin and Randy," says Arizona manager Buck Showalter, "is they cut down your margins of error."

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