Randy Johnson: In Praise of Menace 

Randall David Johnson. The great, dominant left hander who just became what might be the last 300 game winner in Major League Baseball for decades to come. A genuine wonder of weird nature, physically and temperamentally. How to put a fine point on his uniqueness? He is the Hall Of Fame ace on a pitching staff curated by David Lynch. A 6’10” living, breathing Tom Waits song. At age 45 it is hard to know how much more we will ever see of this incredibly strange force, and so we should all take a moment to consider just what we’ve beheld.

A man does not enter causally into a willful and accepting relationship with the nickname ‘The Big Unit’. It’s an odd thing to call yourself. Vaguely threatening, slightly lascivious. To quote the classic film: “That’s a name no man would self-apply where I come from.” Should you assume this nickname, you should be a big man, and a tough one. You should have a mustache and a mullet and throw a hundred miles an hour. The Big Unit has done all that, and more.

But consider the layers! ‘Randy Johnson’ ITSELF is a strong name. Let’s not kid ourselves: it’s a porn name. If you are born Randall Johnson, you can go a couple of different ways. You can STAY Randall Johnson, which sounds like a Promise Keeper. Or you can take it up a notch and become Randy Johnson, filed in the Book of Life someplace between Harry Reams and Haywood Jablomi. The Big Unit made the correct decision, and we can all be grateful for it.

My first happy memories of the Big Unit date to his early days in the league when he couldn’t find home plate with a GPS and a Predator Drone. His wildness was both comedic and frightening. Power pitchers like Bob Gibson and Nolan Ryan have long wielded menace and intimidation as tools of the trade, but none has ever conferred quite the sense of full-scale Russian Roulette as the early Unit. In those days, a penchant for walks and wild pitches meant he was not especially effective in the sense of winning games. He would do things like give up four runs on one hit with ten walks. But the spectacle was already dazzling. In any context other than baseball, a man hurling a hard projectile so carelessly at lethal speed in the direction of another would be charged with felony assault. In baseball this made him a most an intriguing project.

And what a finished product he became! When the behemoth finally found his control, it was as though a mythic terror had shook the very foundations of the cosmos. He was a Grendel-like figure, especially notable for his meanness. He threw over John Kruk’s head in the 1993 All-Star Game. Kruk responded by offering meagerly at three additional fastballs and then running away. He evolved a cruel and malevolent manner on the mound — seeming at times nearly bi-polar crazy in his rage-tinged celebrations. He inadvertently (apparently inadvertently) murdered a bird which flew regrettably into the pathway of an oncoming fastball, emphatically answering the seeming imponderable, “I wonder what would happen if a bird flew into Randy Johnson’s fastball?”

As he awed follow competitors and scared little children into screaming night terrors, he also won at a tremendous rate. Along with Ken Griffey Jr., Johnson elevated the tragic Seattle Mariners to contender status. He was awarded five Cy Youngs and pitched a perfect game. His four-year run with the Arizona Diamondbacks, including a World Series title, deserve clear consideration alongside the best of Sandy Koufax.

When, inevitably, he was brought in as the latest ransomed savior of the New York Yankees, the Big Unit seemed to have no conception of the media hellscape to which he was consigning himself. New York is not Phoenix or Seattle, but somehow he seemed to be caught unaware and emphasized his ignorance on by roughing up a particularly officious Daily News cameraman photographer as he ambled down Madison Avenue. The incident cast a dour pall over his year in New York, and though he pitched well, both sides were happy to part company by season’s end. Always there was the sense that maybe it wasn’t quite safe to loose the man on the metropolis.

It is, I suppose, inevitable in the case of a pitcher who won more games in his forties then in his twenties to raise the question of performance enhancing drugs. I have no idea if Johnson ever did steroids. In a recent Sports Illustrated profile, he was amusingly coy: "I dabbled in all kinds of powders and tried to put weight on” and “I'm not denying that I went to GNC and all that stuff. I took a lot of different things that, you know, maybe at that time, maybe early enough, if I would have been tested, who knows?” Not what one would call an iron-clad denial, but anyway it makes no difference to me.

In the 80s and 90s, baseball was overrun with pharmaceutically enhanced circus freaks. In his preposterously inflated heyday, Mark McGwire looked like a grotesque Macy’s Day balloon. But it was all an illusion — just smoke and mirrors, special effects. Before McGwire got batshit on chemicals, he was just another power hitter breaking down professionally at the same rate as Gorman Thomas — a bad back and failing bat speed. Randy Johnson was never a character like that. He was always a genuine marvel even when he didn‘t have any idea what he was doing.

I don’t know if Johnson is a good guy or a great villain. I don’t know if he’s the kind of person you’d want to have over for dinner — he seems like he might snort ants and bite your dog. All I know is that he has been more fun to watch then nearly every one of his contemporaries and I will miss him when he’s gone. The entire thing has been creepy and awesome, and we won’t see the like of it again.


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