In his first spring training appearance this year, before a sparse midweek crowd in Tucson, Diamondbacks ace Randy Johnson shooed away one photographer whom he deemed too close to him during his warmup session, threatened to unloose a brushback pitch at another, barked at the home plate umpire over the ump's interpretation of the strike zone, snapped 90-mph sliders at the ankles of Colorado hitters and whistled 96-mph fastballs past them. "I'm fired up," he said afterward.
Yes, as they say in Arizona, it was a dry heat, but whenever Johnson's fastball and his disposition redline—especially after a season shortened by right-knee surgery in May—manager Bob Brenly smiles. After winning 84 games last year (14 fewer than in 2002), including only six from Johnson, the Diamondbacks are happy to see the 40-year-old lefthander ornery again, at least on the mound. "I feel like I'm 24 again," Johnson says. "I had the game taken away from me last year. I feel rejuvenated. I've got peace of mind knowing that the knee is fine, and I'm looking forward to going out there because it's like I dropped off the radar. I was a pretty good pitcher before last year, you know."
The Diamondbacks, minus the Air-streams and canasta clubs, are, like many people in Arizona, testing the desert's therapeutic effects on old bones. In addition to Johnson they have a 39-year-old centerfielder, a 36-year-old second baseman coming off the two worst seasons of his career and a 36-year-old leftfielder with a torn ligament in his throwing elbow. And those are the 1-2-3 hitters in their lineup: Steve Finley, Roberto Alomar and Luis Gonzalez, respectively. In the rotation with Johnson is 36-year-old righthander Shane Reynolds, who had a 5.43 ERA last year. And while closer Matt Mantei is only 30, his medical chart deserves a hardbound edition.
Finley, at least, appears to be the Dick Clark of centerfielders. His stats didn't wither a bit last year. Eerily, his runs (82), doubles (24) and batting average (.287) were the same as in 2002 while his hits (148) differed by only three, his steals (15) by one and his slugging percentage (.500) by one one-thousandth of a point. As for Gonzalez, who said the elbow doesn't trouble him at the plate: "I could never throw, anyway," he said. "I'll just have to kick in part of my salary to [middle infielders] Alex [ Cintron] and Roberto because they'll have to run out farther to get my throws."
Alomar, who like Johnson debuted in 1988, when Steve Carlton and Don Sutton were still playing, has the most to prove after showing an across-the-board decline in skills during the past two seasons with the Mets and the White Sox. His defense, base-running (just 12 steals last year) and hitting (career-low .349 slugging percentage) were so suspect that the Diamondbacks signed him to a discount-rack free-agent contract: $1 million for one year, with $350,000 of that deferred with no interest. Alomar turned up his winter training regimen for renewed bounce in his legs and better flexibility. Only 321 hits short of 3,000, Alomar said, "I want to play another three, maybe four years. I think the work I did can help me stay strong throughout the year." Said Brenly, "He's motivated. He wants to show people he's got a lot of baseball left."
The Diamondbacks' offense, which ranked 10th in the league in runs and 12th in home runs last year, figures to be better with the addition of first baseman Richie Sexson, 29, who blasted 119 homers over the past three seasons with Milwaukee. Arizona's aging core should also be aided by some needed young blood, such as the Baby Backs who debuted last season: Cintron, 25; catcher Robby Hammock, 26; relievers Oscar Villarreal, 22, and Jose Valverde, 24; and starter Brandon Webb, 24. Webb throws one of the game's nastiest sinkers, a weapon that made him the third toughest pitcher to hit in the majors (.212), trailing Jason Schmidt and Kerry Wood. He did, however, wear down toward the close of his first big league season, prompting Johnson to tutor him this spring on conditioning.
"That's another reason why I'm all fired up about this year," Johnson says. "We're a veteran team for the most part, but we have a lot of young guys who are going to help us, and we can help them."
With a healthy Johnson and a fit Webb, the Diamondbacks have the best tandem of starting pitchers in the division. It's enough to erase the scowl on a certain lefthander's face.
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]