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Asked what makes him proudest about his career, Johnson replies, "Longevity. Battling adversity. Battling several knee surgeries. Battling two back surgeries late in my career as a power pitcher. That's like Buddy Rich, the greatest drummer of all time, having broken fingers or a broken wrist and wondering if things will ever be the same."
Now 45, and pitching for the San Francisco Giants, 45 miles from where he grew up in Livermore, Randall David (Big Unit) Johnson still casts an enormous shadow, notwithstanding his struggles this season (a 3--4 record, with a 6.86 ERA). He has pitched 22 seasons, struck out 4,831 batters and thrown 66,727 pitches. He needs just two more victories to reach 300 wins, the ultimate pitching imprimatur. Not only would Johnson be just the 24th pitcher to reach that mark, but he also would be the tallest, quite possibly the last, and a very convincing case for the least likely. His career represents a feat of pitching engineering on a monstrous scale, the Hoover Dam of pitching projects. The arc of this massive undertaking can be traced through his milepost victories.
Win No. 1 THE THROWER
Johnson was an oddity, not a potential 300-game winner, when he made his debut for the Expos on Sept. 15, 1988. He beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 9--4 while throwing 93 pitches in five innings. In that garish Montreal cap, blond locks spilling out like an overturned bowl of linguine, he looked more amusing than menacing, not unlike when he was a minor leaguer and had to contort himself into the backseat of his old, beat-up VW Beetle—the front seat had been removed—in order to drive. "I remember being the most nervous I had ever been," Johnson says of that first game. "I remember Glenn Wilson hit two home runs off me in that game. And I go, 'Wow. Who is this guy?' I didn't know players back then."
Johnson made four starts for the Expos that month and won three of them. He made the big league club the next spring but was sent back to Triple A after starting the season 0--4 with 26 walks in 29 2/3 innings. Montreal traded him to Seattle that May to acquire lefthanded ace Mark Langston.
"I had velocity and that's what I got by on at that time," Johnson says. "You see it all the time with young pitchers. You can throw 97, 98 and throw it down the middle, and for the most part you can get away with it. I was blessed with velocity. You really can't teach that. So absolutely, I was a thrower in the beginning, and then over time I developed the ingredients of location and movement to be more of a pitcher."
No. 50 THE STUDENT
On Opening Day of the 1993 season, Johnson threw 120 pitches, struck out 14 batters and, with Valle, not the umpire, calling pitches this time, beat Jack Morris and the defending world champion Blue Jays 8--1. Johnson was evolving, and Valle could sense—well, literally feel—the change. Valle used to wake up with a sore left shoulder the morning after catching Johnson, who was so wild that he would regularly throw fastballs extremely high and away to righthanders, forcing his catcher to reach across his body to stab at the ball. The force from those pitches would tug on the muscles of Valle's left shoulder.
One day in 1992 at the Kingdome in Seattle, Texas Rangers pitching coach Tom House, who, like Johnson, had attended USC, said to the Unit, "Hey, do you want to watch Nolan [Ryan] throw a bullpen [session]?" Johnson said yes, and he wound up getting a pitching lesson from House and Ryan, both of whom detected a flaw in his delivery.
"I was landing on the heel of my foot instead of the ball of my foot," Johnson says. "When I would land on the heel of my foot I would spin, my arm would drop down, I would fall toward third base. That was the one thing I did consistently. I was consistently wild."