Perpetual Heat

What makes Randy Johnson the most feared Pitcher in baseball?

"It's not that abnormal to think when he comes to the plate about all the success he's had against me, oh my God," Johnson says. But then he calms himself and works on getting them out.

How did they feel facing him? Sosa wouldn't talk. Grace fended off the question with a stock answer about having to "get our mindset and get ready for combat."

Hill rubbed liniment into thighs the size and color of a steamboat round of beef, and considered the question. "You have to be present," he said. "You have to understand, Randy is an overpowering pitcher. You just have to anticipate [the ball] being in an area where you can see it, and I ain't going to tell you [how to do that]."

Making a point: Johnson gets emotional on the mound.
Paolo Vescia
Making a point: Johnson gets emotional on the mound.

Johnson is so consistently overpowering that, to a fan, any hit a player gets off of him seems a disappointment.

Damian Miller says Johnson occasionally gets emotional on the mound and then starts to overthrow. And indeed, as he faced Glenallen Hill the first time that day, he shook his head worriedly before the first pitch, then struck him out anyway. He burned Sosa. But Grace lined a double on his first at-bat, and the next time he came up, whether or not he was flustered, Johnson walked Grace, and not intentionally.

Not content just to play defense, Johnson also slapped a single that drove in two runs. He'd felt embarrassed by his hitting when he came from the American League, where pitchers seldom come to bat. Johnson put his considerable work ethic to bear. Earlier this season he had a five-game hitting streak.

In Chicago, Johnson threw 119 pitches in eight innings. He gave up five hits and two walks, dropping his ERA to 0.91, less than one earned run per game. The Diamondbacks won the game 6-0, and Johnson's record for the year was 6-0 as well, making him only the third pitcher ever to win six games in the month of April. He'd had 11 strikeouts in that game, the 130th time in his career that he'd had more than 10 in a game, second only to Nolan Ryan, who holds the double-digit strikeout record at 215.

After the game, when Johnson came out of the showers with a towel wrapped around him and a can of Coors Light in his hand, he had a flush in his cheeks and, for just a moment, the slightest smile on his face.

Randy Johnson grew up in Livermore, California, a small Bay Area town best known as the home of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a research facility that, among other things, studies the security of nuclear weapons.He was one of eight children, all of them tall, though Johnson was the tallest, and he was self-conscious about that. Early in his baseball career, he had to have two pairs of pants sewn together to get his pants legs long enough.

"Randy can probably name the address of every tall man's store in every city where he's played ball," says Carol Johnson, his mother.

His father was a law enforcement officer and a hard taskmaster, and he and his son had a close bond, much of which revolved around baseball.

Johnson started playing at the age of 7. He would draw a square on the garage door of the family house, pretend it was a strike zone, and then throw a tennis ball at it for hours, imagining he was Vida Blue, a left-handed hero of the day who played for Johnson's hometown team, the Oakland A's. When he was finished throwing, his dad would make him get a hammer to pound in the nails that had been bounced loose by the barrage.

He had a relatively quiet childhood, with the occasional American Graffiti-like escapade -- he recalls a late-night scooter ride being chased by police, for example. He played basketball, too, and he could have played both sports in college, but decided to follow his strong suit.

In 1982, Johnson was drafted right out of high school by the Atlanta Braves. He'd been courted by college scouts as well, and decided to go to school instead of going into the minor leagues. He went to the University of Southern California, and his older sister, Cathy Harmon, remembers that he would squander the money his parents sent him for food on rock concerts. Then he'd call her for more. He'd bring his camera to the concerts, and he was so into photography that she thought he would become a photojournalist.

In 1985, he was drafted again after his junior year in college, this time by the Montreal Expos, and he went to work as an apprentice pitcher. He worked his way slowly through the system, and he claims he was a slow learner.

"I'm all arms and legs, so I have to harness my mechanics to get the ball over the plate," he says.

Johnson was traded to Seattle in 1989; he stayed for the next nine years.

"I was kind of a clown," he recalls of his first years there.

He'd put yellow police crime scene tape around his locker, wear a Groucho Marx nose or a conehead in the dugout.

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