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Time For Big Unit To Go

This has not been a banner month in Randy Johnson’s life. First, he finished second to Toronto’s Roger Clemens in the American League Cy Young race - and he never even got an explanation of the slight from Mr. Young. You’d assume a guy with the longevity to win 511 games would at least have the decency to live to the age of 130 and soothe Johnson’s battered ego.

Then the Milwaukee Brewers moved to the National League, without so much as making a courtesy call to gauge The Unit’s feelings on this sensitive issue.

Now there’s this Mariners mess, created when team president Chuck Armstrong announced the club wouldn’t extend Johnson’s contract beyond the 1998 season.

“He’s still in, kind of - not denial - but kind of shock about the whole thing,” Johnson’s agent, Barry Meister, told KJR radio Thursday morning. “He’s now dealing with the knowledge that his bosses don’t want him. Whether they don’t want him in March, or don’t want him in July, or don’t want him in October, they’ve publicly stated they don’t want him.”

To hear Meister moan about it, Johnson was sorting through his collection of Mariners refrigerator-magnet schedules when he got the following form-letter rejection notice in the mail:

Dear team roster member,

It is with regret that we must inform you there is no position available for you after 1998. This decision, we believe, is consistent with our organization’s policy of disloyalty and heartlessness. Please consider this the final correspondence in this matter.

Sincerely yours,

Chuck Armstrong.

Meister wants to make all this as personal as a confession given to Sally Jessy Raphael. He wants to make it sound as though big business is denying this working-class father an opportunity to put food on the table for his growing family.

OK, so the Mariners haven’t earned many style points lately, going public with news of the sale of personal-seat licenses (yuck) in virtually the same breath as the Johnsoncontract decision. Then again, is there any kind and gentle way of telling somebody “you cost too much”?

The market price for a pitcher of Johnson’s ability is somewhere between $8 million and $12 million a year. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume Johnson would accept $10 million annually in exchange for the security of a five-year deal. Let’s put the value of his next contract at $50 million.

Johnson is an electrifying performance artist capable of throwing a no-hitter every time he takes the mound. And his brilliant work in carrying the American League West champs in 1995 - when he won 18 of 20 decisions - is one of the reasons major league baseball is here to stay.

But Johnson was 32 for most of that special season. He will turn 35 in September. A new five-year deal beyond 1998 would pay him past his 40th birthday, on Sept. 10, 2003.

He sat out almost the entire 1996 season with a serious back injury. He lost a month during a key stretch of 1997 to a case of tendinitis in his left middle finger.

The question is crass, but critical: Can this athlete hold up after the age of 35? There isn’t a doctor on this earth who would offer any answer other than “maybe.” Is the prospect of “maybe” worth tying up a quarter of a team’s payroll budget for five years?

No, no, 50 million times, no.

Nolan Ryan started 355 games after the age of 35, and won 125. Steve Carlton made 239 starts, and went 93-74. The remarkable Warren Spahn produced seven 20-win seasons.

But Ryan, Carlton and Spahn were extraordinary exceptions; to gauge what they did between 35 and 40 would be to look at what the concerto-composing Mozart did between 5 and 10.

Most of the big-name pitchers of the past 50 years were basically .500 after the age of 35. Juan Marichal was 16-17. Jim Palmer was 27-20. Tom Seaver was 76-72. Bob Feller was 10-11. Ferguson Jenkins was 53-58. Bob Gibson was 45-44. Dave Stewart was 34-33. And Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale and Catfish Hunter were in street clothes.

Remember Ron Guidry? In 1985, the summer the little Yankees lefty turned 35, he led the A.L. with a 22-6 record and finished second in Cy Young balloting. Over the next three years he was 16-23. He retired with a bum elbow in Class AAA.

Johnson is a wonderful pitcher, but he has reached a point where his age and medical history have outpriced what a fiscally responsible team outside New York, Chicago or Los Angeles can give him.

As for as his personal life, Johnson will be challenged to put his shattered sense of self-esteem back together and try to scrape by on the $6 million the M’s owe him for 1998.

“We’ll all go on from here,” assured Meister.

I figured as much, but it sure helps to hear it from an authority.

MEMO: Cut in the Spokane edition

Cut in the Spokane edition