Yesterday, one of the biggest pitchers of our generation stepped down and retired. And he was big not only in terms of his height, but what he accomplished on the baseball field.
Pitcher Randy Johnson (all 6’10” of him) better known by his famous nickname “The Big Unit,” announced his retirement from baseball after 22 illustrious seasons. He stepped down at the young age of 46, proving that 40 is pretty much the new 30.
Over the course of his 22 seasons in the majors, Johnson pitched for six teams; The Montreal Expos, the Seattle Mariners, the Houston Astros, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the New York Yankees, and he finished his career in 2009 as a member of the San Francisco Giants.
Johnson accomplished so much over the course of his career and he is basically a dead lock for a first ballot Hall of Fame induction. He made 10 All Star Game appearances and tossed a perfect game against the Atlanta Braves on May 18, 2004.
He won Five Cy Young Awards, 303 Games, a World Series Championship and a World Series Most Valuable Player Award (he shared the honor in 2001 with teammate Curt Schilling as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks, who beat the Yankees in the ’01 fall classic).
With the type of career he had, he practically deserves his own room in Cooperstown.
Oftentimes people wonder how he got the nickname “Big Unit.” When Johnson was a member of the Expos back in 1988, his teammate Tim Raines accidentally collided with him in a batting practice session. Raines exclaimed, “You really are a big unit!”
The rest, as they say, is history.
I’ve only had the pleasure of seeing Johnson pitch one time, of course as a member of the New York Yankees. The night was June 21, 2005, Yankees vs. the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Yankee Stadium. I was so psyched to see this future Hall of Famer pitch a game for my favorite team.
Unfortunatley the Big Unit had a rough night.
Johnson scattered seven earned runs behind eight hits in just three innings, giving Tampa Bay a commanding 7-2 lead by the end of the third inning. He walked a batter, struck out three, and gave up three home runs.
It was frustrating to watch, but believe it or not, the Yankees came back and won the game, beating Tampa Bay by a score of 20-11. By the end of the game, Derek Jeter, Hideki Matsui, Alex Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, and Gary Sheffield all hit home runs (Sheffield even left the park twice!)
Yes, the final box score looked like something you might see at Giants Stadium across the river, but I was just thankful the Yankees won. It was an eventful game to say the least!
Although Johnson had a miserable outing, I can vividly remember the reception he got when he jogged out to the bullpen to warm up before the start of the game; the crowd roared for him and showed him a lot of respect; all the respect well-deserved for a pitcher of his caliber. He just didn’t fit in with the Yankees and that was evident from the moment he got to New York.
When he first arrived in the Big Apple, Johnson went to take a physical examination in Manhattan. A CBS camera crew caught him and tried to follow him around the City while asking him questions. Johnson got annoyed and shouted angrily at the cameraman, resulting in a confrontation.
Sure enough, all over the newspapers and media outlets the next day was the Big Unit, slapping away the camera. He apologized for the incident, but everyone I talked to said they didn’t think he could handle New York after what had happened. Those thoughts were well-founded, because after just two seasons in pinstripes, he was gone.
As a member of the Yankees, Johnson won 34 games, had some rough postseason starts, and was involved in a little scrap on the streets of Manhattan. But on the bright side, he never lost to the Red Sox when he faced them.
Following 2006, Johnson had one more year left on his contract with the Yankees. However, he asked for a trade back to Arizona, where he spent most of his career and a good portion of his life. His brother had died and he wanted to be closer to his family, so he asked for the trade and the Yanks granted him his wish.
I will always feel that his heart and soul was never in New York, but always with the Diamondbacks and in the National League in general. To me he was never an American League pitcher, even after all the years he spent with the Mariners.
When I think of Johnson, I think of the National League because almost everything that he really ever accomplished came when he pitched there. And that isn’t a bad thing; it’s good that he was able to find a niche in the NL and have such a successful career pitching in that league.
My congratulations to you, Mr. Johnson. You are truly one of a kind and one of the all-time greats. With such prodigious longevity you will undoubtedly be in the Hall of Fame some day. Nice work!