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When Hubie Brooks, Otis Nixon and Tim Raines of the Montreal Expos heard at the start of spring training that Randy (Big Bird) Johnson would be serving them their daily batting practice, the three hitters, who have a combined total of 8,953 major league at bats, acted as if they had each shrunk by at least two feet. Brooks said there was no way he was going to face the rookie Johnson first because as an RBI guy, he doesn't do leadoff. Nixon begged off, too, noting that, though he often bats first now, he has hit at the bottom of the order for much of his 650-at bat career. So Raines, a former batting champion and for a time the National League's premier leadoff hitter, reluctantly stepped up to the plate. Hey, Randy," he yelled, "time to work on those changeups!"
As this episode shows, Johnson has a way of transforming big-time hitters into skittish schoolkids. He's a lefthander with a crisp slider who can crank the ball up to 97 mph, and he's just wild enough to make batters' knees quake. But what really makes the hitters fearful is Johnson's size: At 6'10", he's the biggest big leaguer ever, eclipsing 6'9" Johnny Gee, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants in the 1940s. With his long limbs flailing and his sky-high release, Johnson is a paralyzing sight for hitters, particularly left-handed ones. Says Raines, "He doesn't look that big up there. Just about nine feet tall."
This season the 25-year-old, 225-pound Johnson, who was called up to Montreal in September and went 3-0 with a 2.42 ERA, wants to distinguish himself by the size of his success rather than the length of his inseam (38 inches). "What we saw last season was all positive—his arm, his stuff, the quality of his fastball," says Montreal manager Buck Rodgers. "We have to see how he handles adversity at this level, because he hasn't had any yet."
Though Johnson towers above this year's batch of rookie pitchers, he's not the only newcomer at that position who stands out. In fact, baseball seems to be rearming itself with a bumper crop of young starters. There's a rail-thin Dominican, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Ramon Martinez, and a portly portsider, the New York Mets' Dave West. There's a hard thrower with sharp control, Erik Hanson of the Seattle Mariners, and a not-so-hard thrower with even more precision, Bob Milacki of the Baltimore Orioles. There's the Chicago Cubs' fireballer, Mike Harkey, who was so shaky during his 34⅔ innings in the majors last year, he almost turned the Windy City into Beantown. And while Johnson is the long of this year's freshman class, 5'9", 160-pound Tom (Flash) Gordon of the Kansas City Royals is definitely the short of it. Gordon, whose curveball is often compared with that of the young Bert Blyleven's, was the first pitcher in four years to be named Minor League Player of the Year by Baseball America. He was also the smallest righthander on any American League staff, a point Gordon would rather not dwell on. "You can say, 'Flash, you're ugly,' but don't ever say, 'Flash, you're too small to be doing what you're doing,' " he says.
Last year 23 pitching prospects made their clubs' opening day rosters, and this year the total will most likely be even higher. "Talent runs in cycles," says Art Stewart, the Royals' director of scouting. "There are cycles when you have a lot of great catchers or great hitters. Kids seem to throw a lot now, but you can't really explain it. In the last few years more good arms have surfaced."
And few arms are better than Johnson's. Yet, though the Expos already have him slated for the fourth or fifth slot in their rotation, there are still a couple of things that could hold him back. One is his control, which can be erratic. Another is his reputation for being a space cadet. In 1983, when he was a freshman at Southern Cal, Johnson made his collegiate pitching debut as a reliever against Stanford. Upon reaching the mound, he told his coach, Rod Dedeaux, that he would pitch out of the stretch to hold the runner. Dedeaux paused, assessed the situation, turned to Johnson and told him that the runner he was planning to hold on was the Cardinal's first base coach.
Johnson's career has been filled with anxiety-provoking moments like that, beginning with his first game as a Little Leaguer in Livermore, Calif., when he showed up late, couldn't find his team and returned home to his mom in tears. The real trauma, however, came between grades 7 and 12, when Johnson grew from 6'2" to 6'9". Though it helped him as a basketball player—he twice led the East Bay Athletic League in scoring—Johnson's height became the butt of adolescent humor. He started to withdraw.
"I used to be a real outgoing person when I was younger," he says. "But then I started getting noticed a lot because of my height. I felt like I was in a three-ring circus and didn't know how to handle it." Even last year the P.A. announcer for the Triple A Indianapolis Indians routinely introduced Johnson to the crowd as the world's tallest pitcher, in a tone that Johnson says "made it sound as if I was a freak."
When the Expos picked Johnson in the second round of the 1985 draft, they knew they would have to tighten up his gangling delivery and batten down his roiling emotions. He tended to be self-conscious and moody, and when things went wrong he was reluctant to shoulder the blame. So Montreal assigned pitching instructor Joe Kerrigan to work closely with Johnson at Double A Jacksonville in '87 and in Indianapolis in '88.
As recently as last June 14. Johnson still seemed likely to self-destruct. He was scheduled to be called up to the majors that week, but he took a line drive off his left wrist and was taken out of the game. Thinking that his career might be over, Johnson stormed into the Indianapolis dugout and smashed his right hand on the bat rack. His left wrist turned out to be merely bruised, but the fifth metacarpal of his right hand was fractured, and he missed the next six weeks. It's a measure of Johnson's new maturity that he can now joke about the incident. "Something had to give," he says, "and the bat rack was plywood three inches thick." He even took in stride a notice that appeared on the Indians' clubhouse bulletin board three days later: "Anybody in this organization who does something hasty to inhibit his ability will be fined." Beneath the message was written: THE RANDY JOHNSON RULE. Says Johnson, "Now I know it's been a gift from God to be this tall and to be lefthanded and to have a fastball. I've grown up a lot."