A generation of sports fans imagined, considerable fear, what it must be like to face Randy Johnson in a batter’s box or elsewhere. He cast, even at ease, a long shadow and a very clear image. He was unfailingly fierce and utterly without remorse.
When he rocked into his pitching motion, lips drawn tight and eyes cold as frozen blades, the entire ballpark could feel his focused contempt long before he unleashed a fastball that reached frightening speeds.
That’s not the Randy Johnson I encountered over the years.
I got the warm, expansive Randy Johnson – the one I expect to appear in Cooperstown, NY on Sunday, when he becomes the latest Bay Area representative to enter the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Though I’d been in a couple group interview sessions with Johnson, the first time I approached him for a one-on-one conversation was during spring training in the mid-1990s. His reputation was that of an austere man with a frosty persona. The visuals supported that. At 6-foot-10, 225 pounds, he was all scowls and sharp angles. He threw hard and with a visible fury.
Insofar as baseball folks generally exhibit the best of themselves during spring training, so I figured I’d give it a shot while he was walking to his car in the player’s parking lot at Peoria Sports Complex in Arizona.
I introduced myself. Told him I grew up in the East Bay, wrote a column for the Oakland Tribune. Johnson extended his hand and said he was pleased to meet me.
“Oakland Tribune, huh?” he said with a slight grin. “I know that newspaper.”
Of course he did. Johnson was born in Walnut Creek and grew up in Livermore, graduating from Livermore High in 1982.
We stood in that lot talking about pro baseball and youth baseball, about growing up in the East Bay in the 1970s and his adoration of Oakland A’s star Vida Blue. We talked about Johnson’s persona and why it exists, about the relationships he has with other players – teammates and opponents.
He also talked about the deep influence of his father, “Bud” Johnson, a police officer who often grabbed a catcher’s mitt to work with his son. Bud Johnson died in December 1992, just as his son was approaching his big-league prime. In the five years after his dad’s death, Randy Johnson went 75-20.
I later understood why he pointed to the sky after complete games, with particular emphasis after his two no-hitters, one of which was a perfect game. That was for his dad.
I was surprised by how open Johnson was on that spring day. I was very surprised by how funny and thoughtful he was. I was absolutely stunned by how much time Mr. Mean spent, on no less than a gorgeous afternoon, with a reporter he’d just met.
We stood in that lot for 35-40 minutes, until I ran out of pertinent questions. Not once did Johnson check his watch or jiggle his keys or show the slightest impatience.
He seemed genuinely delighted, perhaps because he still had family and friends in area. (Still does). Maybe he presumed whatever I wrote likely would reach the folks who remember the awkward kid in the Tri-Valley.
From that day forward, over the next 15 or so years, I wrote of Johnson on numerous occasions. I wrote columns on him. Did free-lance articles on him. And each time, without fail, he was gracious and accommodating.
It was so at odds with his image, best captured by that ugly confrontation on a New York sidewalk in 2005, when Johnson glowered and advanced on a TV camera operator before his two-year stint with the Yankees?
“Don’t get in my face,” bellowed Johnson, who used his hand to cover the camera lens. “And don’t talk back to me, alright.”
Johnson later that day issued an apology. His actions, though, were perfectly in line with his reputation for being surly and ill tempered. His gift for expressing menace, along with incredible stuff, is why Johnson won 303 games and rang up 4,875 batters – second only to the legendary Nolan Ryan on the all-time strikeouts list.
It’s why Johnson is entering the Hall.
My last lengthy conversation with the Big Unit came in 2009, shortly after he signed with the Giants, partly to finish his career in the region in which he grew up. I was doing another free-lance piece and had interviewed, among others, Atlanta star Chipper Jones, who described the evolution of Johnson’s stuff.
“He used to be overpowering,” Jones said. “And now he’s gotten . . . crafty.”
Johnson, then 45, chuckled at the thought.
“Coming from Chipper,” he said, "I’ll take that as a compliment.”