If you grew up watching baseball in the 1990’s there are certain images that will be branded in your mind forever.
Ken Griffey’s silky smooth swing and backwards hat sticks out as the epitome of what every young ball player wanted to be.
Utility middle infielders had a whole different meaning as string beans like Walt Weiss and Jeff Reboulet had careers.
Frank Thomas was the Big Hurt, Mark McGwire was Big Mac, and Randy Johnson was the Big Unit.
While most of the images from my youth are gone from the game, if not tarnished by scandal, the one that remains is the six foot ten lefty, Johnson. You can’t help but remember his flowing gold locks which trailed his 100 MPH fastball and his devastating slider.
Now his mullet may be trimmed, and his youthful ferocious demeanor may be tamed, but still he remains as a San Francisco Giants starter on the brink of history. Johnson will take the mound at Nationals Park Wednesday attempting to win his 300th game, officially capping what has been an absolutely extraordinary career.
While today he is on the brink of the Hall, Johnsons early career had him labeled as more of a gimmick than a front line starter. Until the age of 26 he meandered around between Montreal, the minors, and Seattle, unable to find the consistency to be an everyday member of a rotation. Even his first three full seasons in Seattle were marred by mediocrity. While he was retiring batters at a high rate he also lead the league in walks each year.
He was an incredibly talented ball of clay that needed an artist to mold it. It wasn’t until August 1992 where he had a long conversation with pitching legend Nolan Ryan that he found the mold he needed. The Express showed the Big Unit the way and baseball was never the same.
Johnson went on to become a 10 time all-star and record a record five Cy Young awards within 10 years. He won four consecutive Cy Young’s between 1999-2002 while winning a World Series with the Arizona Diamondbacks. In that World Series he recorded a record-tying three wins earning him a Co-World Series MVP award with Co-Ace Curt Schilling.
He ranks third all time with 4843 career strikeouts and is first all time in strikeouts per nine innings with 10.7. Johnson has lead his respective league in ERA four times, strikeouts eight, and he is the last pitcher to win the pitching Triple Crown; leading the league in ERA, wins, and strikeouts.
In 19 years in the majors he has recorded an ERA under four, 16 times, and an ERA under three, nine times. He has on his resume a no-hitter and a perfect game to go along with his two 19 strikeout and one 20 strikeout performances.
However the impact of Randy Johnson can’t be quantified in his eye-popping numbers. His sheer dominance can’t be seen by his ERA or his massive strikeout total.
One has to remember the helplessness opposing lefty’s felt every fifth day when he was scheduled to take the mound. You have to remember the terror that his early lack of control struck in batters for the next 10 years when he was one of the more accurate pitchers in baseball. You have to remember Larry Walker turning his helmet around and batting from the opposite side of the plate when a 103 MPH fastball whizzed past his head in the All-Star game. You have to remember the bird he evaporated and the ferocious intensity he displayed as a six foot ten Canadian with the hair of a redneck.
Randy Johnson should be appreciated both for the numbers he put up and the lore he brought to the game. In a time where everything turned out to be fake, the mythical giant who threw harder than anyone in history was genuine, lasting, and true.
So go to the game Wednesday night and tip your hat to the Big Unit. If he gets his 300th against the Nationals I for one will not fret, but give him a standing ovation as he deserves it. To the giant who started his career with the Montreal Expos, may his 300th career win come against his first franchise, now the Washington Nationals.