For Randy Johnson, Dominance Didn't Come Easy | Phoenix New Times


For Hall of Famer Randy Johnson, Dominance Didn't Come Easy

On the bright Sunday afternoon of March 18, 1984, Randy Johnson took the mound for the University of Southern California at Arizona State University's Packard Stadium. He was among the most interesting collection of sports figures ever assembled on a college baseball field. The game featured two players who would...
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On the bright Sunday afternoon of March 18, 1984, Randy Johnson took the mound for the University of Southern California at Arizona State University's Packard Stadium.

He was among the most interesting collection of sports figures ever assembled on a college baseball field.

The game featured two players who would break the major leagues' single-season home run record (one still holds it). One would become an NFL linebacker and head coach, another would eventually be a major-league manager. Then there was a center fielder deemed the best player of all of them, a seeming Hall of Famer in waiting.

Oh, and the umpires included a Phoenix resident who would become the first (and still only) woman to rise to the ranks of Class AAA baseball, one notch below the big leagues.

"What a cast of characters!" says slugger Mark McGwire, who was part of the group that now is considered sports royalty.

But for people who followed baseball closely at the time, Johnson was as big a draw as anybody.

Because of his height (about 6-foot-8, as he finished high school) and his occasionally impressive fastball, he had been a big-time baseball prospect since his prep days in the Bay Area town of Livermore.

Shortly before he took off for college, Johnson played for a travel team of elite teenage players. His catcher, Don Wakamatsu, recalls Johnson as fond of photography, music, and playing drums.

"More of a recluse," perhaps because his height set him apart, Wakamatsu says.

As a player, Johnson had a hard time commanding his pitches.

"[But] we all knew if he could throw strikes, he'd be somebody special," Wakamatsu says.

The Atlanta Braves drafted Johnson in the fourth round, but he opted to play in college, figuring he'd get more one-on-one attention there than as one among a horde of young prospects in a professional team's minor-league system.

Johnson picked USC over the University of Hawaii for two reasons: the presence of Rod Dedeaux, the winningest coach in the history of college baseball and the urban charms of Los Angeles.

"I went on several recruiting trips, but I really enjoyed going to Los Angeles," Johnson recalls. "I was a young kid from a small hick town. Going to L.A., that just kind of blew my mind."

At the time of the 1984 game between college baseball's two most glorious programs, Johnson was a candidate to make the 1984 U.S. Olympic baseball team. The games would be played a few miles north of the USC campus at Dodger Stadium.

But Johnson wouldn't make the team.

The player who will be inducted Sunday, July 26, as a Hall of Famer in his first year of eligibility, who is recognized as one of the three greatest left-handers ever (along with Warren Spahn and Sandy Koufax), was struggling merely to hang in his college team's starting rotation.

Glory days, not.

"Glamour" and "college baseball" rarely are mentioned together. The college sport tends to be low profile, at least in metropolitan areas where big-league sports dominate.

But the atmosphere in which Johnson found himself at USC was different.

John Wayne, Tom Selleck, and Jack Lemmon showed up at alumni games, recalls Bill Bordley, a 1970s-era pitcher.

The key was Dedeaux, who seemed to know everyone who was anyone.

"He was a P.R. machine," Bordley says.

In addition, Dedeaux was wildly successful on the field. While John Wooden was winning championship after championship in basketball across town at UCLA, Dedeaux was doing the same at USC in baseball in the 1960s and '70s.

Eleven titles in all.

In the history of American coaches, in any sport, Dedeaux was unique.

He wasn't interested in getting rich via sports. He was a multimillionaire owner of a successful trucking company who charged USC $1 a year for his coaching services.

And then there was the odd way he addressed people. He never called anybody his name.

"He would always call everybody 'Tiger,'" Johnson says. "It didn't matter whether it was a college teammate whom I would hear him start a conversation with or an alum or a booster or a business person.

"It was kind of funny. You always wondered if he knew the person's name."

Says Bordley, "He used to say to us, 'Tigers, we're going to win more than anybody, but we're going to have more fun than anybody, too."

(The joke among the Trojans later became that Dedeaux finally got it right when he met Tiger Woods.)

In college in 1984, Johnson's sophomore season, the Trojans were loaded, as usual, hoping for another NCAA championship.

Johnson merely was the Sunday afternoon starter, the job that usually went to the least consistent member of a college team's rotation.

"I always had moments at every level that I played at," Johnson says. "Great moments.

"I pitched well at times in high school. I think that's what got major-league teams to scout me and universities to offer me scholarships. But it was never consistent.

"It always comes back to my height. It was hard to be consistent with my mechanics at 6-foot-10. That started in high school, when I started getting a little bit taller.

"Pitchers just aren't meant to be 6-foot-10. The average height is maybe 6-1 to 6-3. Repeating your mechanics is critical in order to throw strikes.

"I was able to do that, but not consistently. Therefore, my performances had peaks and valleys."

At USC, the situation could be "somewhat frustrating," recalls fellow pitcher Randy Robertson, who would become friends with Johnson.

"He'd be throwing the ball in the mid- to upper 80s. Then all of a sudden, a pitch would come in and be 94 [miles per hour]. Well, how come he can't do that all the time? I think, at the time, he was still trying to get used to his own pitching mechanics."

It was evident "how much potential he had; he was so raw. You could see why any major-league team would pick him. You give me somebody who is 6-10 who shows the potential to throw in the upper 90s on one pitch. [Teams] think, 'We can work with him and probably get him to throw like that all the time.'

"We got to witness it now and then. Occasionally he would have a game when he would throw consistently in the 90s. Then, in his next outing, he would be either wild or couldn't control the ball. I think, when you have control problems, you sometimes tend to let up on throwing really hard because you start trying to aim the ball.

"That may have contributed to sometimes people thinking he's not throwing as hard as he can. He was just trying to throw a strike.

"We could all see . . . what he could become. Some of the frustrations maybe as a team were that we wanted him to hit that potential faster than maybe he was ready to.

"That would have made us more dominant if he could have been throwing in the mid- or upper 90s. There was no one in college who was throwing like that consistently."

Bordley, the Trojans' pitching coach in 1984, agrees: "We did have a very good team that year. If Randy would have been anywhere near what he turned out to be, it probably would have turned out to be a national championship team."

Johnson, Bordley recalls, "was a very intense, introverted guy, a great competitor."

Bordley worked with Johnson to find a consistent release point. The results were tantalizing but ultimately frustrating.

"He showed flashes of [greatness]. We played a game against Cal State Fullerton one time, and he just blew them away."

"But, the confidence that comes from knowing you can throw hard and throw strikes . . . he did not have that in college. He was a work in progress."

Despite Johnson's thinking he would get more attention in college, Bordley believes Johnson got more daily instruction in professional baseball, which helped him eventually figure things out.

Dedeaux, with his immense influence, successfully plotted to bring baseball to the Summer Olympics in 1984 as a demonstration sport and became the USA coach.

Only amateur players could be used, or players who were just turning pro after the '84 college season. Johnson tried out for the team, but Dedeaux — even though the team lacked left-handed pitching — decided Johnson didn't throw enough strikes to deserve a spot.

McGwire made it; he still remembers the photo of Dedeaux, Johnson, and him in USA Baseball garb.

"He battled with control issues," says McGwire, who himself came to USC as a pitcher but was switched by Dedeaux to a full-time first baseman in '84. "You could see the talent; he didn't corral it until years later."

Johnson still accompanied an American all-star team on a trip to Taiwan and threw some innings.

The Taiwan team had pitchers who stood around 5-8 or 5-9, but they could throw about 90 mph, remembers Robertson, who was on the trip.

Meanwhile, Johnson was throwing in the mid- to upper 80s.

"We had a dinner with their team and our team. A bunch of their players came up to Randy and said, "How can you be so tall and throw so slow?'"

Eventually, Johnson would work with Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan, among others, on such crucial aspects of pitching as where to release the ball and how to use his height as an advantage.

Finally, pitching for the Seattle Mariners in the 1990s, he figured it all out.

He could command a 100 mph fastball, not only for strikes, but precisely where he wanted to throw it. Add a devastating slider that hooked from the left-hand batter's box toward the plate, and Johnson became a five-time Cy Young Award winner (four with the Arizona Diamondbacks), a 2001 World Series champion with the D-backs and the author of a perfect game.

Named The Big Unit by Tim Raines, a teammate from his first big-league team, the Montreal Expos, Johnson rolled up more strikeouts than anybody in baseball history, except Nolan Ryan himself.

Whatever Johnson's shortcomings as a college pitcher, the results weren't from lack of trying.

 "He was very intense in the gym. He would work out really hard, probably more than any of our other pitchers did," Randy Robertson says.

Several of the USC players used to play a game with a large medicine ball. They would lift the ball over their heads and throw it with both hands as hard as possible to another person, who would try to catch it without having his hat knocked off.

"At 6-foot-10 leverage, he had a way of winging this big medicine ball at you [that] was as scary as can be," Robertson says.

"He was the best of anyone I've ever seen at doing that. He couldn't be beat."

At USC, Johnson studied photojournalism, fueling a passion that already had started before his college days and endures today.

He became fast friends with the campus newspaper's chief photographer, who later would hold the same position for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In fact, Johnson left a memorable first impression on Jon Soohoo: "He stood out. A 6-10 guy walking into the office [of the Daily Trojan] wanting to be a photographer. He was very much wanting to shoot."

The paper wasn't exactly deluged by photographers for assignments; it didn't have the budget to pay freelance photographers.

"In the back of my mind," Soohoo says, he was also thinking about the upcoming annual football game between the newspaper staffs at USC and UCLA. Soohoo thought the Trojan staff needed someone more athletic than the student journalists on hand:

"So I asked him to come on board. Take some pictures, sure. But my motive was to get him to play in that football game."

Soohoo seems to think Johnson made wise decisions to stick to baseball and photography: "I think he played safety. I think he got burned on one play."

All in all, Johnson was a "regular guy" who was enthusiastic about shooting pictures, who received and executed assignments for the campus paper, getting his feet wet by shooting a Who concert at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum adjacent to USC, Soohoo says.

The two remain friends and often visited when Johnson was in the majors because Soohoo worked for the Dodgers.

Robertson recalls Johnson "always bringing up how he would get to go to the Forum, get backstage to take pictures of some hard rock band. He'd come back to the field and talk about the concerts and taking pictures."

Johnson says, "I kind of got into the music scene."

All in all, "I enjoyed my three years at USC," Johnson says. "I wish I would have learned more from a baseball standpoint. I learned quite a bit about my passion that I have now, which is photography."

Says McGwire, "He's a fantastic photographer."

McGwire, who recalls viewing Johnson's work when visiting the pitcher's home in Seattle when the two played in the American League in the 1990s.

McGwire's enduring memory of Johnson during their college days was of a quiet, mind-his-own business student who would get around on a bicycle:

"Here's this huge man riding this little bike around campus."

Says Robertson, "It looked almost like he was riding a tricycle."

Johnson's height would define his life.

Johnson once asked Robertson to be his roommate in an old house near the USC campus, on the edge of downtown L.A. The home had multiple floors, with an angled roof "with a little pitch at the top" that made it look a little like a castle with a tower from the outside.

 On the inside, where Johnson lived on the top floor, he and Robertson, who stood 6-4, could only stand up "in the very center of the room" because of the roof's angle, Robertson recalls.

"If you moved anywhere else in the room, you'd have to bend down," Robertson says. "He really had to bend down.

"I ended up saying, 'No, I don't want to stay in here and be ducking down and bending over the whole time.'"

But Johnson ended up staying.

So, on occasion, if you were walking down that street at night and Johnson was at home with the lights on — in this home with a castle-like look and feel — there would be the shadowy image "of this 6-10 guy bent over and walking around the room," Robertson says.

"It was kind of hilarious," Robertson says.

Looking back, Johnson wishes he'd learned as much about controlling a fastball at USC as he did about photography.

"I wish I would have learned more about pitching. That was my hope. That's why I went to college. I thought if I would have signed with the Atlanta Braves, I would have gotten lost in the shuffle of all the other high school and college kids.

"But unfortunately . . . it took me my college time, three years, four years in the minor leagues, and essentially two or three years at the major-league level to really start panning out to show some promise.

"It is what it is. Maybe I just wasn't there yet in learning everything and grasping. Maybe it was my fault for not asking questions.

"As soon as I got my mechanics, the results became better and greater and more frequent."

Every baseball box score tells a unique story.

The one from the 1984 game between ASU and USC could be made into a book and a movie.

The two teams had beaten each other in blowouts Friday and Saturday nights, giving them both 4-1 records in the old Pac-10 Southern Division (known as the Six-Pac). The Sunday game would decide the series, with the winner taking the lead in the division.

In addition, both teams were considered strong candidates for the national championship.

The Sun Devils scored five runs in the first inning and eight more in the third to take a 13-4 lead. This game seemed to be a laugher, one that proved the Devils' superiority.

Fans reacted in kind, serenading USC catcher Jack Del Rio with catcalls. Del Rio was the best-known athlete on the field, owing to his status as a linebacker on the nationally renowned Trojan football team. He's now the head coach of the Oakland Raiders.

McGwire, whose glory years were in Oakland and St. Louis and now is the Dodgers' hitting coach, remembers the fans more than the action between the foul lines.

"ASU fans were some of the rowdiest ever," he says. "They were relentless. Their crowd would just wear us out."

But the Trojans, with all their firepower, were able to fight back. They racked up eight straight hits and seven runs in the sixth inning off relievers Jose Rodiles and Dave Graybill.


In the seventh inning, Del Rio protested getting called out on strikes. The home plate umpire threw Del Rio and an assistant coach out of the game. Another ump tossed Bordley.

"We had complained about some of the balls and strikes," Bordley says. "Del Rio got into it. I was just kindling to the fire at the end. I questioned the umpire. And they said, 'You gotta go, too.'

"The USC-Arizona State rivalry was as good as it gets. And those '84 teams were very evenly matched."

(Bordley has his own story: He helped the Trojans edge the Sun Devils for the national championship in 1978 and reached the big leagues with the Giants before suffering arm injuries. He went back to USC and worked as the pitching coach in 1984 in return for the university's paying his tuition to finish his degree. He would go on to work for the Secret Service and later become vice president of security for Major League Baseball.)

Base ump Pam Postema seemed to avoid the confrontation. She soon would enter the pro ranks and, known for having a strong sense of the strike zone, made it to the AAA level.

Dedeaux sounded embarrassed about the episode, telling the Tempe Daily News, "It was an unfortunate thing . . . a spontaneous reaction on the part of our people, and it shouldn't have happened."

Thirty-one years later, players from the game contacted for this story still remembered various aspects, notably the argument and ejections and the presence of Postema.

The one exception was Johnson, who pointed out that he went on to pitch one more season in college and 25 seasons professionally, counting time in the minor leagues.

"I don't remember things last week, let alone a game early in my career," he says.

For example, he says, he remembers little of his first no-hitter, in 1990 for the Mariners, except for the final out.

Of the 1984 USC-ASU game, he wondered, "Did I give up any runs?"

The game had everything except effective pitching.

McGwire went 4-for-5, Del Rio 3-for-5 with a home run.

For the Sun Devils, Barry Bonds, then a rail-thin outfielder, went 2-for-5 with a home run.

Bonds, of course, became one of the greatest players in baseball history.

He was a dazzling left fielder in the majors with speed on the bases and power at the plate.

In 2001, sporting puffed-up muscles during baseball's steroids era, he looked more like a video-game action figure than a ballplayer as he clobbered 73 homers to break McGwire's single-season record of 70. He eventually broke Henry Aaron's hallowed career mark of 714 and finished with 762.

Subsequent media reports suggested that Bonds began using performance-enhancing drugs after the 1998 home run chase between McGwire and Sammy Sosa because Bonds was jealous of the attention showered on the lesser players.

Bonds, unlike McGwire, never admitted to steroid use but eventually was convicted of obstruction of justice in a steroid-related case. The conviction recently was overturned on appeal.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the box score in the 1984 game was Bonds' place in the lineup: The future superstar batted last in the order.

"I'm sure it was for disciplinary reasons," says Louie Medina, the ASU first baseman that day.

Coach Jim Brock had taken a team vote on whether to kick Bonds off the team, says Medina, who played in parts of three big-league seasons and now is a special assistant to the Kansas City Royals' general manager.

All but one player voted to give him the boot, Medina recalls.

"It wasn't that people didn't like him. But he had his own set of rules," particularly about when and if he showed up for practice, Medina says.

ASU outfielder Oddibe McDowell agrees: "He put himself in the doghouse a little bit."

The lone player voting to keep Bonds, according to Medina, was Mike Devereaux, the team's fourth outfielder, who Medina said didn't think it was appropriate to vote himself more playing time. Devereaux went on to play 12 seasons in the majors.

The vote took place after a road trip to Hawaii, a week or two before the ASU-USC game.

Brock didn't actually go through with bouncing Bonds from the team, but perhaps the message was delivered.

The Sun Devils' game plan against Johnson was to force him to throw strikes. When Johnson fell behind in the count, he would have to ease up on his fastball and throw it over the plate, says Medina, who got a hit off Johnson in the first inning and ended up going 3-for-5 with a homer.

The game's biggest producers included Medina and ASU outfielder Todd Brown, who went 4-for-6, including a home run.

ASU catcher Don Wakamatsu, who caught Johnson on their travel team as teenagers, went 1-for-5. He later would manage the Mariners. Today, he's the bench coach for the Royals, the defending American League champs.

Facing Johnson always was a challenge because of the pitcher's height, Wakamatsu says: "You seemed like you were going to hit his fingertips with the bat."

Then there was McDowell.

The speedy center fielder was considered the best player in this game and eventually won that season's Golden Spikes, an award that goes to the nation's best college player. He was a magical lead-off hitter who seemed ready to take over for Rickey Henderson as the best top-of-the-order batter in the majors.

McDowell, who now coaches at his high school in Florida, reached base all six times he batted, four on hits (one off Johnson in the first inning), two on walks.

In facing Johnson in college, McDowell recalls "this tall, skinny kid" and thinking, "Wow, this guy is going to throw some gas." After seeing him pitch, "We were all saying, 'He couldn't break a pane of glass.' The reason being he couldn't throw strikes. So he had to try to lay it in there."

McDowell joined McGwire on the 1984 Olympic team, the realization of Dedeaux's dream of putting baseball in the Olympics. The Americans made it to the final game before bowing to Japan. McDowell would go on to a solid, if unspectacular, career in the majors.

Playing for Texas while Johnson was throwing 100 mph darts on the corners of the plate for Seattle, McDowell thought, "Surely, this can't be the same guy."

The 1984 game ended as a 15-12 win for the Sun Devils. The Trojans had two runners on base with the potential tying run at the plate, but Graybill got the last out on a ground ball.

Looking back, Robertson says, "When you think of all the players and all those names you hear about now, wow, that was an amazing college game!"

College baseball doesn't feature players like Randy Johnson and Barry Bonds anymore, Medina says.

Because of the big money offered nowadays by teams, potential superstars are all but forced to go straight to the pros out of high school.

ASU would go on to reach the College World Series in Omaha that year but fell short of the title. USC, with Johnson struggling to find his control, would be eliminated in an NCAA regional tournament by Cal-State Fullerton, the eventual champion.

With all that went on during this game, the accounts in the Tempe Daily News and the Arizona Republic made no mention of Johnson.

The big left-hander didn't make it out of the first inning. He recorded only two outs, giving up four hits and three runs. He would be replaced in the rotation by his friend Robertson.

His best days were far over the horizon.

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