Perpetual Heat

What makes Randy Johnson the most feared Pitcher in baseball?

On his way to the field to throw practice pitches, Randy Johnson has to duck his head along the length of the tunnel that leads from the visiting team clubhouse to the dugout. Architects apparently didn't anticipate 6-foot-10 ballplayers when the park was built in 1914. The fans are waiting for him by the low bullpen wall -- uncharacteristically respectful -- and he pauses for 10 minutes to sign autographs before he walks out to the warning track beyond right field to go through his day's workout.

Johnson's workweek is a five-day ritual. On the day after he pitches, he does weight training for his legs, already thinking about the next lineup he'll face. On day two, he works his arms and plays some "long toss," throwing the ball easy. On day three, he does an upper body workout and throws on the side, working on the mechanics of his pitching.

"When you don't have the proper mechanics, you're putting strain on yourself, whether it's your back or your knees or your shoulder," he says.

Pointing the gun: Radar consistently clocks Johnson?s pitches at nearly 100 miles per hour.
Paolo Vescia
Pointing the gun: Radar consistently clocks Johnson?s pitches at nearly 100 miles per hour.
Release point: One pitching coach says that Johnson?s long arms make his pitches seem even faster than they are.
Paolo Vescia
Release point: One pitching coach says that Johnson?s long arms make his pitches seem even faster than they are.

He watches film of himself to make sure he is throwing with maximum efficiency, which for him means a three-quarter-high sidearm less stressful on the shoulder.

"Putting your arm over your head and jerking it down violently every fifth day is not what the Good Lord intended for us to do with our arms," says Showalter.

And because Johnson's proportions are so much larger, there's even more stress on the superstructure. In 1996, his back gave out from the torque and he had to have disk surgery.

On day four, "I start mentally preparing myself," Johnson says.

It's also the day he starts getting testy. He picks up the newspaper to see how hitters are doing. He studies charts showing how he fared with each batter the last time he faced that team. He memorizes the index cards prepared for him by pitching coach Mark Connor that present a strategy, batter by batter, written in shorthand.

"This is how you get them out," Johnson says as he points to the notations on such a card. Pitch by pitch, he narrates, "Two-seam fastballs down, fastballs in and out, sliders down."

On day five, game day, Johnson works himself into an altered state he calls "my own little world." Even his family stays away from him.

"That's the day I let him sleep in," says Lisa Johnson. "I don't send the kids down the hallway to wake him."

He gets up, eats a ritual breakfast of pancakes and eggs and drives the kids to school. After lunch, he bangs on his drum set.

Earlier this spring, a neighbor in Paradise Valley saw Johnson in his backyard on game day and wished him luck over the fence.

"He literally growled at me," the neighbor says.

Johnson gets to the ballpark two and a half hours before game time and no one goes near him except for the catchers and the pitching coach, who still need to discuss strategy. He sets his jacket on his chair in a certain way, lays out his towels in a certain way and listens to head-banger music while studying his cue cards and imagining himself throwing the pitches to the batters in question.

Johnson meditates and uses the kinds of visualization techniques practiced by martial artists, though he has not studied martial arts beyond the moves his father taught him as a kid. Yet he talks about being a "warrior" when asked -- and he is frequently asked -- about his intimidating presence.

"Your demeanor out there, your body language can have a great effect on the opposition," he says. "If you show a lot of confidence, a warrior-type mentality out there, usually he's either going to step up and challenge that or not. And if he doesn't, then maybe you like to think you've got the upper hand."

Even the start of the game is ritualized.

"I come walking in from the dugout," Johnson says in an otherworldly voice. "My wife and kids are usually up in the stands. I tip my hat to them if they're there. At game time, I take the mound for my warm-up pitches. Step off the mound before the first batter comes. I always say a little prayer behind the mound. And then I prepare for battle. From that point on, I have tunnel vision."

When he slips out of the tunnel, he uses meditation techniques to get back. It's not uncommon with the bases loaded and a 3-2 count to see Johnson step off the mound a moment to regain his focus, then step back and fire a 98-mile-an-hour heater for the third strike.

Three hours later, he emerges from the shower to deliver the standard "We just play them one game at a time" homily before the TV cameras in the clubhouse. His back hurts, his arm hurts, his head hurts.

He finds his way home and unwinds watching SportsCenter on TV and doesn't talk about the game with his wife until the next day, when the five-day ritual starts all over again.

Game days on the road for Johnson only differ in where he wakes up and where he goes to bed, and in the absence of the green leather recliner next to his home-clubhouse locker. In Chicago before his game, he moved through the locker room like a wraith, his face already set in the sharp edges of his game face. Other players parted before him.The day before, Johnson had let on that he feels stressed facing hitters who have hit well against him. He mentioned Cubs players Sammy Sosa, Mark Grace and especially Glenallen Hill.

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