clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How Randy Johnson spoiled my love of baseball

...albeit in a good way. Kinda.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

I moved out to Arizona in the fall of 2000. My direct experience of the game prior to that point consisted of a couple of games seen in person on previous trips; a few contests screened extremely late at night on a minor British television channel; the odd video-tape sent to me by Chris; and many, many hours of Earl Weaver Baseball. But now, I was in a town with actual, for-real, major-league franchise, and the following year, I took full advantage of it. Of course, we all know what 2001 was like for the Arizona Diamondbacks. As a debut season, it could not have been better scripted to take a rookie Brit and turn them into a life-long devotee of the local team.

That said - and I absolutely wouldn't trade the memories of the year for anything - lucking into something like that for your first taste of the sport is a double-edged sword, because I wasn't able to appreciate it as much. It has now been 14 seasons since that, and not only does that remain the team's only championship, they have not won a game past the Division Series since. If something appears easy, you simply take it for granted. 2001 was like my turning 18 and going downstairs to find Penelope Cruz sitting on the couch wearing a warm smile and holding a bottle of chocolate syrup. Yeah, it was great, but every year since has failed to recapture that experience.

Certainly, I wasn't able to grasp fully how dominant Johnson was until after he had left the D-backs for the first time, at the end of 2004. From 2001-2004, he made 123 regular-season appearances: he lost only 33. Many of the L's were because the offense didn't show up; in 24 of those, Arizona scored two or fewer, and in the majority (18), it was zero or one run. So, over a four-year period, including a season on one of the worst teams in NL history, Randy Johnson lost a total of nine times where he got more than two runs of support [Don't forget, this was in an era where offensive exploded; the 2001 and 2002 D-backs both scored over 200 runs above what we did last season]

We are talking insane numbers in just about every way. Let's cherry-pick a couple of favorites. In 2002, Johnson threw eight complete games in 35 starts. Since the beginning of last season, in 257 attempts, the entire D-backs staff have a total of three. In 2001, Johnson struck out 372 batters; Curt Schilling, the following year, is the only other National League pitcher since to come within one hundred strikeouts of that figure. We may never see another 300 K season again. And there I was, sitting on the couch, casually observing the Big Unit in action, like a third-grader in front of a Van Gogh, going "Ooh! Pretty colors!"

That was the norm for me, over the first four years of my "true" baseball fandom. Every fifth day, Johnson rolled out there and the Diamondbacks having a good chance to win was the closest to a sure thing that existed in baseball. Even in the depths of the crappy 2004 season - and by that point, I did know enough to appreciate just how bad the year was - you knew there was always the chance for something special in a Johnson start. That's exactly what happened, on the magical day in Atlanta, when the stars aligned, and Johnson tossed the sole perfect game in franchise history.

There have been some perfect games thrown by mediocre pitchers, and many of the greatest have never thrown even a no-hitter: Maddux, Martinez, Carlton. Johnson had come close on occasion: he already had a no-hitter (albeit, a six-walk one!) under his belt with Seattle, and had faced one over the minimum, against the Rockies at Bank One Ballpark the previous September. But I missed the first few innings of his perfecto. Why? Because I was out getting a hair-cut. That's how casual I was about Johnson's outings in those days. Now, I'd be disconnecting the Internet, pulling down the blinds and refusing to answer the phone.

Then he was gone - and, in a awful twist of fate, to the Yankees, the team he destroyed in the World Series. It was the baseball equivalent of "Luke, I am your father," if Darth Vader had pushed the cameraman over on his way out of the scene. Ever since then, the quest for a pitching ace has been Ken Kendrick's white whale. Oh, we've come close on occasion: Brandon Webb certainly had his moments, and many of them, but dialing up yet another ground-ball to the infield isn't quite the same as a 97 mph slider generating a Little League swing and sending the shell-shocked hitter back to the dugout.  If strikeouts are fascist, they're the cool kind of fascism, with the great fashion sense.

So, when Randy Johnson becomes the first player to enter the Hall of Fame as a Diamondback, my feelings will be a mix of awe and regret. I'll remember the many incredible moments during his time here, documented elsewhere on the 'Pit. But I'm also sorry that, for four years, I treated his appearances as the norm - because, for me, they were all I knew. One start in five came from, arguably, the most blisteringly dominant left-handed pitcher in baseball history. This was just the way it was. That brilliance became routine, and as a result, under-appreciated. Lesson learned. Pay attention to greatness when you get the chance. For who knows when you might see it again?