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."