Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Fitting Send-Off For The Big Unit

Randy Johnson's retirement announcement was originally supposed to take place today at some point. However, neither Randy nor any of his advisors realized that the Hall of Fame voting was also planned for this afternoon. As a result, they scrambled to rearrange the event for 7:00PM last night.

I happened to be watching the end of SportsCenter at that point and they directed people to ESPN News for the announcement, which I foolishly assumed would be some sort of a press conference. Instead, it was just a conference call. And a particularly disorganized one at that.

Randy came on just after 7:00 but in a moment of poetic justice, reporters kept joining the call, drowning out his official announcement with a series of beeps and at one point, a phone ringing in the background. They broke the call for a couple of minutes and then re-started it at about 7:05. He seemed all too happy to announce that this would be the last time he would take questions from MLB reporters and said that he didn't regret the way he treated other people during his career but did regret the way he was portrayed, as if those two weren't inextricably linked.

The horror stories about Johnson you'll hear from members of the media are numerous so it's sort of fitting that his aversion to them (holding a conference call) overshadowed what should have been a fairly significant announcement. Not many tears are shed over the way athletes treat reporters but the consensus is that Johnson was one of the worst.

Of course, Yankees fans don't have very fond memories of the Big Unit. Perhaps I was more naive about baseball back when they acquired following the 2004 season, but I expected him to be pretty awesome when he came to the Yankees. I think most people were in the same boat. The gap between the AL and NL didn't seem so large at that point and our view of aging players was badly skewed by steroids, even if we didn't fully realize it yet.

Johnson came to symbolize the worst of what the Yankees were about this decade - a guy who they acquired just past his prime who was still being paid like he was in the middle of it. Even with his flat sliders and surly temperment, Johnson wasn't that bad in 2005, picthing 225 innings to a 3.79 ERA. But he stumbled out of the gate a bit, giving up 15 runs in his first four starts, including 5 in a loss at Fenway Park. Although it probably wasn't fair, Yankees fans expected immediate dominance and instead they got mediocrity, starting off the relationship on the wrong foot.

The Big Unit finished out his '05 season with 5 consecutive wins but gave up 9 hits and 5 runs in 3 innings against the Angels in Game 3 of the ALDS. The following year started off better for Johnson but went downhill fast, a herniated disc in his back sapping his once legendary velocity and action and dragging his ERA down to an even 5.00. He made a start against the Tigers in the '06 ALDS but was tagged with the loss after allowing 5 runs in 5 2/3 innings.

Shortly thereafter, Johnson was headed back to the desert in exchange for Ross Olhendorf, Luis Vizcaino, Steven Jackson and Alberto Gonzalez, an impressive haul for a 42 year old pitcher with a back injury coming off a poor season.

Taking off the Pinstriped glasses, it's hard not to appreciate the uniqueness of Johnson's career. He has the most strikeouts per innings pitched of all-time among pitchers with 1000 IP and 100 decisions. Four consecutive Cy Young awards.

He was stiltishly tall and awkward, almost bird-like in his wingspan. By his 26th birthday he had accumulated all of 10 career wins but somehow managed to reach 300. He walked 416 batters from in the three years from 1990-1992 but only 978 in his final 16 seasons. He was a menacing presence -more feared than respected - but that's how he wanted it to be.

1 comment:

  1. "almost bird-like" reminded me of this:

    I guess with thousands of pitches thrown something like this could happen, but to have it be Randy Johnson. Pook bird. Do you think it could have dodged a Wakefield knuckler a Moyer "fastball"? If not, maybe it only ends up a few bruises.