Perpetual Heat

What makes Randy Johnson the most feared Pitcher in baseball?

When the Mariners first threatened to trade Johnson, Thiel wrote a column saying, as he paraphrases, "Sure he's a whiner, sure he's eccentric, but don't trade the guy."

It was a favorable column, but the next time Johnson saw Thiel in the clubhouse, he said, "So, I'm a complainer?"

One beat writer accused Johnson of being a quitter because he was babying his back after surgery. After that, Johnson would not talk to anyone if that reporter was in the room.

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.

The accusation cut deep.

"I have never questioned Randy's heart or desire," Thiel continues, and he recalls a crucial series against the New York Yankees in 1995 when Johnson, a starter, and not yet rested from his last start, volunteered to do duty as a reliever.

"I remember Randy walking in gunslinger-style in the ninth inning to do battle," Thiel says. "It was absolutely spine-tingling."

Johnson had won more games and thrown more strikes than any Seattle pitcher, but talk of trading him continued into the 1998 season, and it took its toll on Johnson's performance. Finally, the Houston Astros took over payments on the last of Johnson's contract. He was set free and returned to pitching like a superstar in Houston.

"I was 35 years old, was coming off back surgery, and then maybe I was in a downside of my career," he says. "So a lot of things just motivate me to prove people wrong."

His friends and family felt the same way.

"That kind of stuff makes him want to excel even more," says Lisa Johnson.

"I think he really felt cheated that he'd given his whole body and soul to that team," says his friend and former neighbor Pat Birkel. "He referred to it as a marriage, and they ended up getting divorced. It really bothered him because he thought his career was going to be there. He noticed a big difference going to Houston."

Carol Johnson calls his departure from Seattle "a great day of sadness, almost like a bereavement."

Before the 1999 season, Johnson signed on with the Arizona Diamondbacks for a reported $52.4 million over four years. His annual salary is second only to Kevin Brown's of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

"I said shortly after I signed my contract that I was grossly overpaid," he says. "Pat Birkel [a firefighter] saves lives. He pulls people from burning buildings. He rescues drowning children. You can't put a price on that, and yet I get paid more than him."

He'd kept a home in a middle-class Glendale neighborhood for several years, was building a new house in Paradise Valley, and had already decided to raise his kids here.

Johnson's Valley neighbors can't say enough nice things about him. Steve Moak, a neighbor in Paradise Valley, recalls the birth of Johnson's youngest child last year.

"My mental image is of him sitting in a chair, holding his little baby that could actually fit in his hand, wrapped around and protecting it."

Birkel recalls taking Johnson to his first Phoenix Suns game, with tickets up in "the cheap seats, and him being the regular guy he is, he said, "Sure, I'll go.'"

Johnson and his family spent that Thanksgiving with the Birkels, and Johnson would quip that his wife should set extra places for the ESPN reporters sitting outside in cars, hoping Johnson would answer a few questions about his impending move to the Diamondbacks.

In Glendale, the dads on the block would sit out on the street together on Halloween to give out candy to children while the wives took their own kids trick-or-treating, Birkel recalls. Johnson was still playing for Seattle then, and another of the neighbors was a die-hard Yankees fan, given to needling Johnson about the Mariners.

The visiting trick-or-treaters recognized him; they'd ask in that straight-ahead kid way if he was Randy Johnson, and Johnson would pretend he didn't know who they were talking about. They kept pressing him to tell them where he lived, and finally, according to Birkel, he pointed to the Yankee fan's house and said, "Over there. And you know what? Ken Griffey Jr.'s coming over tomorrow at noon."

Next day, the street was mobbed and the Yankees fan decided to spend the afternoon somewhere else.

For the most part, Johnson has been courteous to the press in Phoenix, perhaps having learned from his mistakes in Seattle. Nonetheless, the old, ornery Randy Johnson overshadowed the neighborhood-guy image shortly after he moved to Paradise Valley when he got into a spat with a TV reporter.

The Diamondbacks had called a press conference for the next day to announce Johnson's signing, scheduling it to accommodate Johnson's mother, who was flying in from California to attend. One of Johnson's daughters was sick and he and his wife were getting ready to take her to the doctor.

Just then, a TV reporter appeared at the door. He'd followed a car into the gated community trying to get a scoop on the Diamondbacks signing.

Johnson unloaded on him, allegedly swearing at the reporter and vowing not to talk to that station's reporters in the future.

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