SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Early in the morning, before another practice was beginning Randy Johnson, more relaxed than I’ve seen him in the 20 years I’ve known him, was waxing nostalgic.
At 45, now pitching for the San Francisco Giants, Johnson is methodically fighting against the dying light of a Hall of Fame career.
And more than a decade removed from his days with the Mariners, more than a month away from his first start of the 2009 season, he is speaking about his time in Seattle with great affection.
Everything came together for Johnson in Seattle. He got his first real opportunity there. He learned how to pitch there, learned how to win.
He collected the first of his five Cy Youngs with the Mariners, and when he returned to pitch against them, as an Arizona Diamondback, he was cheered warmly, even as he was beating the Mariners at Safeco Field.
“The Mariners threw me out there every fifth day regardless,” Johnson said, speaking earnestly, almost emotionally. “It was a sink-or-swim situation for me. It was rough going at the beginning, but eventually things started panning out. It was a great time for me there.
“They let me pitch even though they didn’t know what they were going to get. Would I strike out 15? Would I walk seven? They gave me an opportunity, and no pitcher can ask for more than that. I feel like I got my act together in Seattle.”
What an act!
In his 10 seasons with the Mariners, Johnson won 130 games, more than he’s won with any other club.
Now, even at his advanced age, Johnson still occasionally throws a fastball 95 mph. He’s still an imposing figure on the mound. Still all snarl and flying locks. Still as hotly competitive as he was as a kid. Still as resilient as weatherproofing.
After two back surgeries in 10 months that took away his 2007 season, Johnson is feeling strong again. He pitched 184 innings last season with Arizona and is five wins away from 300. He is a lock for the Hall of Fame, and he appreciates what Seattle did to point him toward Cooperstown.
“Seattle was my steppingstone,” Johnson said. “I always felt I was appreciated there, and I appreciated all the opportunities I was given there. They were great fans, and I feel like I was there for the greatest moments of that franchise. It was a pretty exciting time in my life.”
Is he so appreciative he would he consider going into the Hall as a Mariner, rather than an Arizona Diamondback?
“Seattle really saw the beginning of what I was to become,” Johnson said. “There were a lot of bumps and bruises in Seattle, the growing pains, if you will, and because of them I was able to eventually reap the benefits.
“But the Hall of Fame? I don’t even want to think about that. I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I have warm feelings for Seattle, but I’m just thinking about today and this practice today and then I’ll think about tomorrow.”
In the twilight of his career, Johnson seems more comfortable with himself. The anger that once flared in front of his locker at the Kingdome has quieted.
He admits he is savoring these days in the big leagues more than he did in his days with the Mariners, or even his first stint in Arizona when he won three games for the Diamondbacks in the 2001 World Series.
“I’m at a point in my career now where I want to enjoy, a little more, the things that are around me,” he said. “Appreciate the games a little bit more. Appreciate what I’m doing at this point in my career.
“When I was a little bit younger, doing those things, I didn’t really take in what I was doing. It was my job, and I was doing my job and probably didn’t appreciate it as much.”
Johnson is a medical marvel. He continues to throw purpose pitches at the game’s Grim Reaper. Still defies the odds. He made 30 starts in Arizona last season. Had a 2.41 earned-run average after the All-Star break, fifth-best in baseball. For the season, he had the National League’s third-best strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Now he says he feels great, and to prove his point, he struck out seven Diamondbacks in a three-inning stint last week.
The D-Backs made a lowball offer to Johnson last winter, and it cost them. He signed a one-year, $8 million deal with the Giants instead, and striking out seven in an early March spring-training game against his old team is Exhibit A for the fire smoldering inside him. The hard-boiled competitor was sending a message to his former employers.
“My drive to come back and pitch after the back surgeries has been fueled by knowing that I can still pitch at a high level,” Johnson said. “People say that I’ve just come back to win 300 games, but that’s not the case. If you’re 45 or 46 years old and still pitching at a high level, why would you want to retire?”
In fact, Johnson isn’t ruling out the possibility of pitching until he’s 50.
“Who’s to say that I can’t pitch just because I’m 50 years old?” he asked. “If I’m 48 years old and I’m still throwing 93 (mph) and still winning 10 or 12 games and still having fun and still being competitive, why would age matter? I’ll retire when I feel like the fire had gone out of my belly. But I still have that fire and that will to compete. That’s why I went through those back surgeries.”