Perpetual Heat

What makes Randy Johnson the most feared Pitcher in baseball?

"How do you take someone seriously when they have a conehead on or big glasses?" he asks now.

He was also inconsistent as a pitcher, and over the next three years, had only moderate success, going 14-11, 13-10 and 12-14 for those seasons. But he had flashes of brilliance, too -- a shutout in 1990, for example. He amassed a lot of strikeouts, and a lot of walks, and a reputation as being wild.

Then in 1992, Johnson got an impromptu lesson in the basics of pitching from Nolan Ryan and Tom House.

Tower of power: The windup begins with the long stare.
Tower of power: The windup begins with the long stare.
Tower of power: The windup begins with the long stare.
Paolo Vescia
Tower of power: The windup begins with the long stare.

Ryan, of course, was playing for the Texas Rangers, House was a coach for that team, and the two were sitting on the visitors' bench watching Johnson struggle through a workout before a Texas-Seattle game.

"He wasn't really pleased with the way it went," House recalls, and he and Ryan called to Johnson as he walked by the bench.

Now, you wouldn't imagine that a player of Johnson's temperament would take kindly to meddling, especially from an athlete on the other team. But this was Nolan Ryan, one of the game's all-time greats, so Johnson paid heed.

House and Ryan had noticed that after his windup, Johnson landed on his right heel, instead of on the ball of his foot. His toe was spinning off toward third base instead of pointing toward the plate, and energy that should have been channeled into the pitch was dissipating off to the right. As a consequence, Johnson was not releasing the ball at the same point with every pitch. And all of that contributed to his inconsistency as a pitcher. It was making him throw wild.

"I had a number of pitching coaches working on my mechanics because I was so tall," Johnson says, "but none of them ever touched on that. It was the missing ingredient of my success."

Ryan and House had Johnson throw the ball against the wall behind the bench.

"Nolan and I were smiling," House says.

So was Johnson. Within two weeks, he'd internalized the new style and struck out 18 batters in eight innings. Then when the season ended, he traveled to Texas to help Ryan and House with an instructional video they were making.

Johnson learned more than technique from Ryan. He learned attitude.

"I watched his mannerisms, his body language and various things like that," Johnson says.

"I don't want to say you have the battle half won, but you have a little bit going for you before you even take the mound if the hitter feels that he's going to be intimidated by you. You have to use that to your advantage and pitch accordingly."

Later in the same year that he met Ryan, life threw Johnson a curve ball; this was one he couldn't hit.

In December 1992, he and Lisa, then his fiancée, traveled from Seattle to the Bay Area to spend Christmas with Johnson's family. Johnson's father had had bypass surgery around Thanksgiving and was recuperating well. When Johnson and Lisa finished breakfast on their first day in the Oakland area, the phone rang: Johnson's father, who lived near Sacramento, had been taken to the hospital with blood clots in his legs.

Johnson and his siblings piled into a car for the two-hour drive from Oakland to the hospital in Sacramento. But when they got there, Johnson recalls, "My mom walked out of the room and I could tell by her face that my dad hadn't made it."

Johnson was crushed. As the youngest child, he'd been doted on, and he felt a strong bond with his father. They would frequently talk after games, and even as a major leaguer, his dad would take him to task if he had walked any batters.

"I said my goodbyes to him -- which were kind of difficult when you see your dad dead right there," he says, his voice cracking with the memory. "But I made a promise to him and a promise to myself that I'd work harder and do whatever it took to make him proud of me."

At first he wasn't sure if that would involve baseball. He thought of quitting, but after talking with his mother, he decided to keep playing. And he ended the year a more serious man and a more serious competitor.

The 1993 season was a breakthrough year for Johnson. He led both leagues in strikeouts and finished second in the Cy Young balloting. The next two years went just as well, and in 1995 he won the Cy Young. But he blew out his back in 1996 and lost most of the season to the injury and the subsequent surgery.By then, Johnson was increasingly being labeled a griper and a grudge-holder, especially by the press.

"Randy has got that prima donna complex and needs to feel good all the time," says Art Thiel, a sports columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "His numbers speak eloquently about him, but Randy is insecure."

And, according to Thiel, the Seattle Mariners couldn't deal with that.

Johnson didn't help matters. He was reportedly jealous of the attention lavished on Seattle's other superstar, Ken Griffey Jr. He repeatedly brought up a perceived slight -- when the team president asked him how his father was, after his father had died. If a reporter made an unfavorable remark about him in print, Johnson would refuse to speak to that reporter.

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