During this past season Schilling bought a home two blocks from Johnson's in Paradise Valley, Ariz. (Schilling, who spends the off-season outside Philadelphia, plans to move to Arizona year-round next year.) Schilling challenged Johnson's Cy Young status in spring training mostly as a means of motivating himself. The Diamondbacks were in first place in the National League West when Schilling, a three-time All-Star, joined them in 2000, but without full strength in a surgically repaired right shoulder, he was 5-6 in 13 starts and Arizona slipped to third place, 12 games out. "The thing I respected about him was that he felt like he'd let the team down," Johnson says. "Not himself. The team."
As power pitchers, they had similar professional pedigrees, but their skill in golf—each carries around a 13 handicap—allowed them to enhance their friendship. They struck a standing bet: loser buys the winner the shirt of his choice in the pro shop. Schilling has been known to bring his trophy shirt into the Arizona clubhouse and wave it in Johnson's face in front of teammates. At Camelback, Johnson, out of earshot of Schilling, voiced his concern when he reached the 12th hole two shots down. "I better start throwing up some birdies," Johnson said, "because I don't want to have to listen to him for the next two and a half months."
Johnson didn't need Schilling to become an elite pitcher. Since 1995, with the Seattle Mariners, the Houston Astros and the Diamondbacks, Johnson has been on an extended run of domination (119-39, 2.66 ERA, 2,082 strikeouts in 213 games) that rivals the 1961-66 run of Koufax (129-47, 2.19 ERA, 1,713 strikeouts in 223 games for the Dodgers). What Schilling gave him was breathing room, enough latitude to crack a smile or a joke. Johnson had spent most of his career feeling the pressure to win virtually every time out because the gap between his ability and that of the next best starter in his rotation was so wide.
"What helped most with Curt was that he's one of the few pitchers who knows the expectations put upon that ace in a rotation of five pitchers," Johnson says. "So I can share with him experiences and feelings I couldn't share with anybody. That's why teammates saw a side of me this year they didn't see before, like putting [golf balls] in the clubhouse before I pitched playoff games. I didn't have the burden I'd been carrying for years. I didn't have to come to the ballpark knowing I'd have to win this game. I felt like if we were pitching back-to-back games, if I didn't win, he would. And if he didn't, I would."
Johnson and Schilling pitched back-to-back 16 times this year. In those instances Arizona never lost consecutive games. The Diamondbacks were 25-7 in those games, including the wins in Games 6 and 7 of the World Series. In those two games both men felt their deceased fathers guiding them.
Johnson's father, Bud, was a police officer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., who almost never missed Randy's Little League games. Randy would practice pitching against his garage door, pretending he was another lefty, Oakland Athletics star Vida Blue. The kid threw so hard he'd loosen nails in the wood siding. When Randy was done, Bud would hand him a hammer and say proudly, "Pound them back in, son."
"When I threw a no-hitter [for the Mariners] in 1990, I called him up, and he said, 'How come you walked six guys?' " Johnson says. "That's how he molded me. I tell people I want to have a better season next year, and they'll say, 'How? At your age?' Well, why can't it be better?"
On Christmas Day 1992 Bud Johnson suffered an aortic aneurysm while Randy was flying from Seattle to spend the holiday with his parents. Bud was dead by the time Randy reached the hospital. "I saw him in his pajamas and just hugged him and cried," Johnson says. "I talked to him. Everything spilled out. Mostly it was, 'Why? Why did you have to leave?' I made a promise then that nothing would get in my way, that I'd become the best pitcher I could be."
Since then Johnson has squatted behind the back of the mound before each start, bowing his head and saying a prayer in his father's memory. He is 151-53, a .740 winning percentage, since Bud's passing.
This season Arizona shortstop Tony Womack left the team for a week after his father died suddenly. When Womack rejoined the club he sought out Johnson to ask how he had dealt with his father's death. "What I told Tony was that you must dig deeper inside yourself to find a level you never knew was there," Johnson says. "Pressure is what my father went through, not what we face."