SI Vault
 
The Unit Has Landed
TOM VERDUCCI
February 28, 2005
Ace lefty Randy Johnson, a pitcher the Yankees coveted for nearly a decade, hit the ground running--and chatting--at his first spring training in pinstripes
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
February 28, 2005

The Unit Has Landed

Ace lefty Randy Johnson, a pitcher the Yankees coveted for nearly a decade, hit the ground running--and chatting--at his first spring training in pinstripes

View CoverRead All Articles

RANDY JOHNSON may already have gone Sean Penn on the paparazzi, held two press conferences (with and without shrimp), signed his new team's standard-issue megacontract and pulled on the famed pinstripes--just as the portly Cecil Fielder set a club record for most, the 6'10" Johnson did so for longest--but he officially became a New York Yankee last Friday morning when owner George Steinbrenner walked up to him in the team's Tampa spring training clubhouse, stuck out his hand and said, in a rare moment of deference, "Hi, big man." � At last, more than six years after Steinbrenner actively began his pursuit of Johnson, the Big Unit and the Big Kahuna met face-to-face for the first time.

"Glad to see you're cleaned up," Steinbrenner said, noticing that Johnson's trimmed locks and beardless mug conformed to club policy. "Glad you're here."

"Cleaned up?" Johnson said in feigned surprise after his daily workout. "I didn't even take a shower yet."

Steinbrenner took no note of Johnson's usual droll humor and moved on. He then told reporters he had coveted Johnson "ever since he beat us in Seattle" in the 1995 Division Series. "He's just a gamer," Steinbrenner said. "He's a helluva pitcher."

The Boss had missed out on Johnson when the Mariners traded him to the Houston Astros in 1998, when Arizona signed him as a free agent after that season and, most critically, when the Diamondbacks considered dealing him at the nonwaiver trade deadline last July--a whiff that most likely cost the Yankees the World Series. New York finally succeeded on Jan. 11 by sending the Diamondbacks righthander Javier Vazquez, lefthander Brad Halsey, catcher Dioner Navarro and $9 million. In Steinbrenner, Johnson has found a soulmate in competitive spirit. He says he understands that he's a Yankee for no other reason than to win the World Series. "It's like Donald Trump and money--he's got plenty of it but never enough," Johnson said on Saturday. "When you win, you want more of it. You can't win enough. That's why I think this is a good fit, because they expect to win and I expect to win.

"I know every team goes to spring training hoping they're good enough to get to the postseason. This team isn't even talking about the postseason. It's talking about the World Series and winning it. Who else does that? Maybe Boston now. Oakland, back in the [1970s]. You have to be here to understand that, and after only three days I do."

Johnson is a Yankee because New York has not won the World Series in four seasons, an epoch in Steinbrenner Time. Last winter the Yankees blundered in remaking their rotation after Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and David Wells left as free agents. New York miscalculated on the enigmatic Vazquez, who suffered a second-half meltdown; erratic righthander Jose Contreras, whom they jettisoned to the Chicago White Sox in midseason; and creaky righty Kevin Brown, the nominal ace who beat up only Tampa Bay (4--0 versus the Devil Rays, 6--6 against other teams) and a clubhouse wall (result: a broken left hand). New York's season ended with a 10--3 pasting by Boston in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series, in which the Red Sox bludgeoned Brown and Vazquez for a 6--0 lead before the Yankees had batted in the second inning.

Though the Yankees won 101 games (only one by a lefthanded starter, Halsey), they became the first team in major league history to break the century mark without a 15-game winner. "That's hard to believe with a team like this," says Johnson, who went 16--14 for an Arizona team that won only 51 last year. Yankees general manager Brian Cashman oversaw another makeover this off-season, vowing to add youth, power and lefthandedness to the rotation. Free-agent righties Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright, both 29, are hard throwers in their primes. The lefthanded Johnson, who turned 41 last September (his uniform number will match his age this year, since centerfielder Bernie Williams wears Johnson's traditional 51), is simply the greatest strikeout machine baseball has ever seen (11.12 K's per nine innings, tops all time among pitchers with 1,000 innings or more), with no signs of diminished skill. Over the last eight seasons Johnson averaged 231 innings and 307 strikeouts.

"Last year was one of my best years," he says. "I struck out 290 batters at 41 years old. I'm tired of people questioning me because of my age. If you looked at my numbers and watched me throw and covered up my birthdate, would age be an issue? No. How old is [Johan] Santana? Twenty-five? Did he have a better year than me?"

After two throwing sessions by Johnson, Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre said he was "amazed" at how easily the ball flew out of Johnson's hand. Johnson gushed, "I feel good on the mound right now, better than I have the last couple of years."

Continue Story
1 2 3