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It was much larger than your ordinary dentist's waiting room, though in other respects typical of one. The air inside the windowless space was cool and noticeably undisturbed by conversation. Magazines rested in soldier-straight piles atop black laminated coffee tables in front of black leather sofas. Men sat with Chins on their chests; one of two shuffled noiselessly across the carpet to the bathroom. A digital [clock ticked the seconds away. A foreboding sense of pain—the only question was, how bad would it get?—hung palpably in the room. � Welcome to the Arizona Diamondbacks' clubhouse at Bank One Ballpark. Eliciting hope here last week was like pulling teeth. � No one surveyed the gloom from a better vantage point than Randy Johnson, the team's 6'10" lefthanded ace. Johnson turns 41 in September, has one more season remaining on what may be his final contract and every 10 days or so endures an injection into his right knee of a space-age lubricant gel that fills the hollow once occupied by cartilage. The digital clock ticks most cruelly for him. � Around him slumped a collection of has-beens, aren't-yets and maybe-never-will-bes that constitute what perhaps is the National League's worst club since the 1965 New York Mets, who lost 112 games. A 4-30 streak at week's end—capped by Sunday's 3-2 loss in which Johnson pitched eight shutout innings and struck out a season-high 14 but watched the bullpen blow a 1-0 lead—dropped the Diamondbacks below the vagabond Montreal Expos for baseball's worst record (31-69) and put them on track to lose 112 times. Next season? Beware of snake oil. No team in baseball history has made the playoffs the year after losing more than 97 games.
With as few as two Octobers left in his Hall of Fame-worthy career, Johnson has had enough of this waiting room. Soured by the losing, certain that a rebuilding team does not need a 41-year-old pitcher and chagrined by scarce communication from ownership, Johnson is eager to be traded to a playoff-ready club—that is, if the Diamondbacks can extract a package they like from a team able to absorb the $22 million left on his contract ($6 million for the remainder of this season and $16 million for 2005).
"This team is young," Johnson told SI last week. "It's not built to win right now. Should I stick around the rest of the year and all of next year going through this again? I may not pitch after next year. There are some good young players here, but they're still learning how to win. It takes time. I'll be done playing when a lot of them know what it takes to win.
"I've got more [value] for a winning team. Do I want to leave? No. I've enjoyed it here. But the reason I've enjoyed it is we've been winning. This team was put together to win in a four-or five-year window, and that window is closed. This team is going through a major transformation. If I'm guilty of anything, it's wanting to win. The only thing I want is to win."
In a trade market short on impact players, Johnson is the only eureka! piece that could swing the balance of power in a division or wild-card race and, more so, in a postseason series. At week's end he was 10-8, led the majors in strikeouts (174) and ranked third in opponents' batting average (.191) and fourth in ERA (2.68). On May 18 he became the oldest pitcher to throw a perfect game.
"There's no one 25 years old, no one 35 years old, no one at any age who can do more than me," he said. "My body feels good." Asked if he was distracted by the torrent of trade rumors, he replied, "Obviously it doesn't affect me when I'm pitching."
The Anaheim Angels, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees are the teams that can most likely afford to trade for Johnson. A deal would almost certainly have to occur before Saturday's 4 p.m. EDT trade deadline; to be dealt thereafter, players must pass through waivers, unclaimed by 28 teams, a virtual impossibility for a player of Johnson's value.
New York and Boston are short on the quality, major-league-ready prospects Arizona seeks and thus may have to involve a third club to acquire Johnson. Anaheim is loaded with such rising stars, including third baseman Dallas McPherson, catcher Jeff Mathis and first baseman Casey Kotchman, but with the seventh-best record in the AL through Sunday the Angels are not the October lock that Johnson seeks.
Johnson cannot be traded without his approval. He said that he has not specified to Arizona any team to which he would approve a deal and that he's not seeking a contract extension. He expressed to management only a desire to play for "an actual playoff club" and "not one that sees me as the missing piece that can get them in."
While the Yankees best fit Johnson's wishes, New York has found trade talks with the Diamondbacks frustrating. "We're still trying to find out who they like, who they don't like and what they're looking for," one Yankees executive said last week.