On game day, Randy Johnson's face has more sharp angles than a Picasso painting. He's built like the Fahrvergnugen man, sticklike arms and legs attached to a big triangle of a chest. He walks to the mound with a bouncing, stiff-legged, redneck gait. He puts his glove to his face, covering everything but his eyes, and glares at the batter.
His windup is more of an unwinding, a windmill of long limbs that pauses for an instant with his throwing left arm at right angles, forearm parallel to the ground. The jaw suddenly stops chomping its gum, and the mouth strains into a downturned crescent. The arm catapults across the body in a blur. The ball whistles toward the plate with a hundred-mile-an hour shirrr that sounds like a rattlesnake.
"If you catch it right, it sounds like an explosion," says Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Kelly Stinnett.
Johnson has been called explosive. Currently he's being called the best pitcher in baseball. But he's been called a lot of things.
Early in his career with the Seattle Mariners, he was joker wild, sitting in the dugout wearing a conehead. On the mound he was as likely to hit the batter or the backstop as the strike zone.
And so he refined his throwing style and his game-day persona, and he won a Cy Young Award, the highest honor a pitcher can receive.
Johnson the joker became Johnson the intimidator, the Big Unit, all puns intended. But he also became known as a grudge-holder.
"He used to dwell on
things more when he had a bad day," says his wife, Lisa.
He tangled with the press in Seattle, compiling a list of reporters he would no longer talk to. They in turn called him old, and as he was recovering from back surgery, they speculated he was near the end of his career. The Mariners apparently agreed, because in 1998 they traded him to the Houston Astros to play out the last year of his contract.
Johnson snagged a record $52.4 million contract to play in Phoenix, where he'd lived in the off-season for several years. And far from being old and injured, he won the Cy Young Award for a second time in 1999, his first season with the Diamondbacks.
So far this season he's way ahead of all other pitchers in the number of innings pitched and pitches thrown. After nine games, his earned run average was an astonishingly low 0.97. He won the first seven, left the eighth before the Diamondbacks clinched the win and lost the ninth despite striking out 12 batters. In his 10th game, the Diamondbacks' loss last Sunday to the New York Mets, he fanned 13, but surrendered five runs, pushing his ERA to a more than respectable 1.44. Even on the other side of the plate, he's hitting better than anyone is hitting him. On May 8, the headline under his picture on the cover of Sports Illustrated read, "The Best He's Ever Been."
On off days, off the field, Johnson's face has a softer cast to it, but his gaze is hot enough to make your eyes water. He's got a deep, quiet voice, and a way of speaking that makes you wonder if he thinks too much. He punctuates his sentences by spitting tobacco juice into a plastic cup. He is rigid and methodical, and his schedule for the four days in between starts is inviolable. He makes an effort to be polite, but he seems a man apart in the locker room.
"I'm not here to make friends," he's said to more than one reporter.
Outside the ballpark, his friends and family describe a Randy Johnson that most of us will never see. To them, he is laid-back and loyal.
"He takes the trash out, picks up the dog poop," says Pat Birkel, his former neighbor in Glendale. "He's an all-around different guy than the person he puts on."He's fond of music -- Rush and Soundgarden and Pearl Jam -- and has an extensive collection of records and CDs. He plays the drums and has made friends with a number of rockers. He's a good enough photographer to have exhibited in galleries, though when he sells a photo, he donates the proceeds to charity.Because he is so guarded with the media, he seldom lets those sides of him show in interviews.
His mother tells him he should smile more in public. She even gave him a small stone with the word "smile" etched into it, which he keeps in his locker.
"He wrinkles up his nose and he can be really funny," says Carol Johnson.
Occasionally, that sense of humor leaks out into the world. For example, Sports Illustrated for Kids once asked him if he'd ever invented anything, and he replied, "I invented electricity and the light bulb, but I didn't get credit for it."
He chokes up talking about his late father or about his children -- he has four, three girls and a boy, all under the age of 6.
But his friends also report that even with them -- on the golf course, for example -- he is intensely ultracompetitive.
In baseball, left-handed pitchers have long been considered different, if not downright loony. The word "sinister" comes from the Latin word meaning "left." Johnson is certainly sinister on the mound, not just because he's a lefty, but because of his extreme height: He is 6 feet, 10 inches tall. "Basically, the game is designed in favor of a left-handed hitter and a left-handed pitcher," says Dr. Tom House, a Del Mar, California, sports psychologist who pitched for Atlanta, Boston and Seattle. "It has to do with angles, distance and time and the perception of those angles, distance and time."
Hitting is a matter of training and conditioning, and so when the ball comes from a discernibly different angle, namely from the left hand instead of the right, it can throw a batter off. The left-handed batter has an edge, some would say, because he's already two steps closer to first base when he stands at the plate. Common thinking is that left-handed hitters have trouble hitting off of left-handed pitchers.
"As a pitcher, you're supposed to have an advantage against a left-handed hitter simply because you can throw your breaking ball in to him and your release point may look like it's going to hit him," Johnson says.
It's no cakewalk for a righty, either.
"Randy, for the most part, pitches on the inside part of the plate to right-handed hitters," says Diamondbacks pitching coach Mark Connor. "He stands on the left-hand side of the rubber. When he delivers the ball, his arm is at an angle that the right-handed hitter sees his arm where a second baseman would normally play. The illusion of that makes you think the ball is going to be on the outer part of the plate. Most pitchers, when they throw the fastball, the ball's pretty much coming in on a straight plane; his is coming on an angle."
Catcher Kelly Stinnett says that when Johnson is pitching, it's not uncommon for batters to jump out of the box because they think the ball is coming at them when it's coming right down the center of the plate.
"Hitters are looking for something that comes out of a pitcher's hand that looks inviting to swing at," says Diamondbacks manager Buck Showalter. "There's not a lot that comes out of his hand that makes you think, "I could do something with that ball.'"
Johnson throws two pitches, a slider and a fastball, in fine-tuned gradations of speed and movement. The slider is a pitch that starts out like a fastball and breaks like a curve ball, only less and later. Johnson's moves 86 miles per hour or faster. The speed and movement of his fastball depends on where he grasps the ball. His two-seam fastball, according to Stinnett, moves four to six inches away from the hitter; like a rocket-powered moth, it flutters in at the low to mid-90s. His four-seam fastball comes straight in at 98 to 100 miles per hour, so fast that even experienced catchers look at the clock to see just how fast.
"When I'm catching and he hums one in there on an 0-2 count and I think it's hard, I look up there," says catcher Damian Miller. "Last year in Philadelphia, he hit 103 three times."
What's it take to hit a fastball? According to Terry Bahill, a University of Arizona engineering professor who wrote a book on the subject, it takes only 450 milliseconds -- less than half a second -- for the ball to travel from the pitcher's hand to the catcher's mitt. And in that time, the hitter has to calculate its trajectory, figure out where the ball will be, and start swinging long before the ball gets there.
Add Johnson's height into the mix. Most pitchers are 6-1 or 6-2, nearly a foot shorter than Johnson. And Johnson's got longer arms.
"One foot of distance is three miles an hour to the hitter's eye, not in velocity," says House. "In other words, the gun's going to read the same, but if Randy releases his hundred-mile-an-hour fastball closer to home plate by one foot, it's 103 miles per hour to the hitter's perception."
And his stamina: Most pitchers hit the wall by the time they've thrown 100 pitches. Johnson likes to pitch the entire game, and he leads the league in complete games. As Showalter says, "He's throwing 98, 99 miles an hour with his 120th pitch."
As Stinnett adds, "I don't think Randy ever runs out of juice."
Outside Wrigley Field in Chicago, you used to worry about being mugged. Now you have to worry about getting run down by a $500 baby stroller pushed by some Gen X yuppie who's hopped up on Starbucks coffee. The neighborhood bars are also filled with yuppies instead of the traditional drunk old-timers who would occasionally lift their heads from the mahogany to shout at the TV; the only word you could ever understand was "bum," and from that you knew they were talking about baseball.But inside "The Friendly Confines," little has changed in the past 50 years or so. The grass is still cut in a crosshatch pattern that resembles the bad plaid on a cheap sofa in the typical Chicago rec room. And baseball here is still a daytime obsession far more important than workaday life. Upward of 40,000 fans a day come to see the Cubs and jeer the opposition during batting practice. They know the faces and names of every player and they call out insults accordingly.
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.
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.
"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]."
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.
"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.
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.
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.
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.
"I don't remember saying any obscenities, because my wife and daughter were right there," Johnson says now.
Nonetheless, the reporter got a story, even if it wasn't the one he'd come for.
On May 5 in Phoenix, Johnson was pitching his usual overpowering game against the San Diego Padres. In his first at-bat, the San Diego pitcher, Sterling Hitchcock, who'd played with Johnson in Seattle, uncorked a fastball that struck Johnson squarely in his left elbow.There was a collective gasp in the ballpark. The benches emptied. Buck Showalter led the Diamondbacks contingent, on the way to the plate to calm his pitcher.
Johnson pointed his bat at the mound and called out a few choice words. The pitch had hit him on a protective pad and didn't cause any damage, but it angered him anyway.
"My career is my left elbow, whether he meant to do it or not," Johnson says. "I let him know I wasn't happy."
Had he been hit on purpose?
"Well, I don't know," he says. "The two guys before me hit home runs. Why would he want to hit me? I don't know."
Back in 1997, during a spring training game against the San Francisco Giants, Johnson accidentally hit a player named J.T. Snow, knocking him cold and fracturing his eye socket. Johnson was mortified.
"He was laying down in all this blood," he says. "I realized that any pitcher, not just myself, has the ability to end someone's career."
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Hence, his anger at Hitchcock.
Showalter was holding Johnson back. According to some accounts, Johnson tossed Showalter out of his way. But Johnson insists he never intended to charge the mound.
Instead, he says he told Hitchcock:
"I want you to know that I won't forget about it, and your teammates are going to know that I haven't forgotten about it, too. So there'll be a little bit of a fear factor in the back of the hitters' minds, too, that maybe someday, not this year, not next year . . ."