Bauman: Legacy larger than Unit himself
Fiery Johnson one of a kind in this -- or any -- generation
Randy Johnson is one of those rare performers about whom it can truly be said: You won't see anybody remotely like him again.
Johnson's status has changed now -- all the way from Big Unit to retired. Thanks for a ton of memories, big guy.
Johnson announced his retirement in a conference call with reporters Tuesday night. He is 46. It might be time. But he did his best work in the second half of his career, winning, for instance, the last of four straight Cy Young Awards in 2002, at age 38.
And that was after he had won three games in the 2001 World Series for Arizona, iron-manning it at the end, coming back from a winning Game 6 start to pitch a final 1 1/3 innings in relief in Game 7 as the D-backs beat the mighty Yankees.
On May 18, 2004, in his 40s now, Johnson threw a perfect game against the Atlanta Braves. He recalled on Tuesday night recording the last out with a 98 mph fastball. For the '04 season, he struck out 290 while walking 44. His preparation was impeccable. His focus was legendary. His ability was equal parts eye-popping and long-lasting.
He put up his 300th victory in '09 while employed by the San Francisco Giants. It might be said that he will be baseball's last 300-game winner. But even if somebody else comes along and reaches that lofty plateau, that somebody will not have the aura of the Big Unit.
His retirement was a perfect reflection of his career. "The bar was still set high," Johnson said, but after two back surgeries and a torn rotator cuff in recent seasons, "my skills were obviously diminishing."
Johnson said that he thought he would physically be able to pitch for another season, but he no longer believed that he could perform at a level that would satisfy his own lofty expectations. And as he correctly noted: "There's not a lot left from me to do in this game."
The chances of Johnson reflecting a lot about his career during his career were not particularly good. He was too busy getting ready for the next start.
BIG UNIT'S BIG NUMBERS
|Strikeouts per 9 IP||10.61||1st|
|Cy Young Awards||5||2nd|
|Bases on Balls||1,497||13th|
"It's all been a bit of a whirlwind," he said Tuesday night. "I never really got caught up in what I did."
He did acknowledge the '01 World Series championship as the largest team accomplishment of his career. But along the way, the appreciation of his achievements was largely left to the rest of us. That was all right, too.
What we had here was an impossibly tall left-hander. He was 6-10, but the length of his arms and legs and his slender build made him seem even taller than that. For a time, as Johnson suggested in this conference call, it appeared that he was too tall, that a more compact pitcher would have less body length to control, and thus, more command.
But starting in 1993 with Seattle, Johnson mastered his art. The radar-bending fastball caught everybody's attention, but there was also the wicked slider, that dived down toward a right-handed batter's rear foot. It appeared to be a strike for a while, but then it was unhittable.
Beyond that, there was Johnson's intangible makeup, which turned out to be perfect for the job at hand. Yes, over the years, he was often pictured as aloof, irascible, a loner. Very few people, Johnson said, "saw the hard work that went into getting the final product."
And that competitive persona, he said, was only him on the days that he pitched. And maybe, the days before he pitched when the intense preparation started.
Johnson suggested three common descriptions for himself: "Ornery, animated, fierce."
That wasn't the real Randy Johnson, he said, but that image did work for him. "I kind of regret that that's the way I was portrayed, but I got the most out of myself that way," Johnson said.
In the end, Johnson said that he wanted to be remembered as a fierce competitor, somebody who worked hard and "gave everything I had."
Hands down, all of that will be in his legacy. But his legacy will be even larger than that. The Big Unit became a singular pitching force, one of the greats of the game, a pitcher who combined sheer force with acquired command. He became a pitcher unlike any that came before or will come again.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.