Legendary for a rib-rattling fastball as well as a slider called “Mr. Snappy,” Randy Johnson added something new to his Seattle repertoire Friday:
The make-up pitch.
Reflective, rambling and eager to amend his Seattle legacy, the Big Unit, on the eve of his Saturday induction into the Mariners Hall of Fame with longtime batterymate Dan Wilson, engaged in some emotional bleeding Friday before a handful of writers and TV cameras.
“I have more time for reflection about my career these days,” he said. “My dad always told me when I was pitching, ‘Don’t get caught up in success. You’ll get detoured and lose focus.’
“So now that my career is over, I do some reflecting. My kids and my wife don’t care, so I spend a lot of quiet moments in my office talking to myself.”
What emerged Friday from the wonderland that has has always been Johnson’s mind was the imaginary conversation he apparently has been having with some Seattle fans who haven’t quite forgiven him for the 1998 season, his last in Seattle, when he was obsessing over utlimately futile contract negotiations, which led to his trade to Houston.
“It really bothers me that people (in Seattle) think I tanked (the 1998 season),” he said, referring to his pre-trade record of 9-10, followed by his 10-1 run with the Astros that helped put Houston in the playoffs. “People think I wasn’t trying my hardest. How I can answer that?”
The question apparently wasn’t rhetorical. He spent several minutes trying.
“Coming to the ballpark, I wasn’t focused, and it affected me,“ he said. “I know what it looked like, but I was dealing with the contract and things got a little fuzzy. Did I get sidetracked? Absolutely. I always wanted to stay here. I didn’t want to leave. But when I left here, it was like a ton of bricks off my back.
“Some athletes, it doesn’t affect that much. It affected me. I’m sorry I got so hung up on that.”
Johnson seemed as sincere as one one of his up-and-in fastballs. For as dominant as he was – one Cy Young Award in Seattle, four more in Arizona -- speaks to the description – Johnson always had a prominent streak of insecurity. The need for acceptance was nearly urgent, which explained why he couldn’t get over the Mariners’ reluctance to make him the richest pitcher in baseball.
Even Friday, when he came to town to be feted, he couldn’t get past articulating his shortcomings.
Coming to Seattle in a 1989 trade from Montreal, “I didn’t know much Seattle history, but it was a losing one, never over .500. I wasn’t much of a pitcher, either, so it was a good fit,” he said, laughing. “What symbolized my time was inconsistency. I was a lot like the Seattle weather. I’d wake up (like) a sunny day, it was like 15 strikeouts. I wake up and it’s rainy, and I walk seven and can’t get out of the third. Being 6-10 and (throwing) 100 mph, those things don’t go together very well.
“I had a lot of low points, a lot of failing. The one thing I did was search for consistency. It took me awhile.”
While the lows speckled his early years, most Mariners fans remember his peak years, when every start was an event, even more so than Felix Hernandez today. And Johnson helped the Mariners to their first playoff appearances in 1995 and 1997, offering the kind of electric memories that eyewitnesses years later can recite as if giving forensic testimony.
He also gave the Mariners a scariness that made them formidable, with which each passing year of franchise feebleness makes the aura of the time even more majestic. With hitters such as Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez and Jay Buhner, the Mariners of the middle nineties were a team of stature and respect.
But from a results standpoint, all that came of the potential was one playoff series win.
“All that being said, yes, I’m surprised we didn’t do more,” he said. “There was a window there from 1995-98, and not as much materialized as we hoped.
“I can say that after winning the World Series (in 2001 with Arizona over the Yankees) that the talent on the 1995 Seattle team was greater. There wasn’t a pitching duo like Curt Schilling and I, but that Seattle team had talent that meshed together well."
As for Wilson, he spent the day that included a Safeco Field luncheon as Johnson’s sideback, offering careful, brief thoughts to Johnson’s diva diversions. He did have one poignant thought at the luncheon that captured the best times for Mariners fans.
He talked about Rich Amaral, who was his teammate, road roommate and best friend on the teams of that era. A Southern California guy, he tried explaining to Minnesota-born Wilson the joys of surfing.
"He told me the key to to surfing was catching a great wave,” Wilson told lunchgoers. “I played with four first-ballot Hall of Fame, Randy, Alex, Junior, and Ichiro. They inspired and challenged me.
“For me, I caught a great wave in Seattle.”
For some time since, it’s been a puddle. This weekend is a chance one more time to revisit the one good wave.