- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2004

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Randy Johnson had a surprise — two of them, actually — for catcher Robby Hammock a few weeks ago after Johnson became the oldest, not to mention tallest, major league pitcher to throw a perfect game.

Not long after Johnson’s gem in Atlanta against the Braves, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 40-year-old, 6-foot-10 left-hander presented Hammock with a watch. The box said Rolex; the contents said otherwise.

“It had a plastic black band and a silver facing,” Hammock said. “It was digital. I thought, ‘Is this something new?’ Randy said it was a top-of-the line Nike watch.”

Just kidding. Behind his back, Johnson, who seems to enjoy messing with people’s heads on and off the mound, was holding the real thing, a Rolex engraved “From R.J.” with the date (May 18) of the perfect game.

“That was the coolest part,” said Hammock, who turned 27 five days earlier. “I was in awe. I was speechless.”

The watch, as well as a videotape that seemingly came out within minutes of the final pitch, serves as a permanent reminder of an amazing, historic event that left others — teammates, fans, anyone with a pulse — feeling like Hammock. But Johnson has no time or use for such awe-inspiring, speech-depriving remembrances.

“It’s come and gone,” he said last week of the perfect game.

Johnson was sitting in front of his locker at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix. His gaze, the same laser stare that buckles hitters’ knees even before he uncorks his nasty slider, locked on what’s next instead of what was.

“That was almost a month ago,” he continued. “Just like the World Series, you enjoy it, but we’re not champs anymore. The perfect game was four starts ago. You need to move on. Someone who would be wrapped up in a game four starts ago wouldn’t be focused on what’s going on now. I would think that person wouldn’t be doing very well.”

That person is not Randy Johnson. He is doing very, very well. He is a certain Hall of Famer with five Cy Young Awards — all since 1995 — and in 2001 helped lead the Diamondbacks to a World Series victory over the mighty New York Yankees in just their fourth year.

Regarded as one of the top five left-handed pitchers of all time, in the company of luminaries Lefty Grove, Steve Carlton, Sandy Koufax and Warren Spahn, Johnson pitches tonight against the Orioles at Camden Yards. He pitched there before while with Seattle, but Johnson’s most memorable moment in Baltimore came during the 1993 All-Star Game when he playfully heaved a fastball over the head of John Kruk. The chunky Phillie laughed, feigned horror and struck out.

It was great theater. Naturally, Johnson downplayed the whole thing.

“That was 10 years ago,” he said.

But it’s part of history.

“Your history,” Johnson said. “My history moves on. I’m thinking about my next start. One thing I learned a long time ago, when I walk out that [clubhouse] door, I forget about yesterday’s game. I’m prepared for my next game, my next start.

“The All-Star Game was fun. It was humorous in some people’s eyes, but that stuff comes and goes. It’s not making me a better pitcher. It was good for the fans, but I don’t dwell on the past. Just like I forgot about the perfect game. … That inevitably has made me a better pitcher because I don’t dwell on my bad games and I don’t dwell on my good games. You’ve got to move on.”

Johnson has moved to within three months of his 41st birthday, yet he continues to dominate and intimidate, even after knee problems ruined his 2003 season. Despite a shaky outing in his last start Wednesday against San Francisco (five innings, four runs), he leads the National League in strikeouts (94), is tied for second in wins (seven) and is eighth in ERA (2.88).

As a young pitcher, Johnson was known for a blazing fastball that could end up anywhere, including a batter’s ear. With his height, long hair and intense demeanor, it was a scary combination. The wildness is gone, and instead of worrying about getting conked, opponents are more concerned with looking foolish.

“It gives you a little chill when he gives that stare and he gets locked in and he gets going,” said Stephen Randolph, a Diamondbacks relief pitcher.

“He just has that fear factor about him,” Giants right-hander Jason Schmidt (7-2, 2.61 ERA) said. “He’s left-handed, he throws at 98 miles per hour and puts the ball anywhere he wants to, and he’s not afraid to put the ball inside. He’s won five Cy Youngs, he’s 40 years old and he’s still striking out 13 guys a game. It’s insane.”

Giants slugger Barry Bonds, whose history with Johnson goes back to when they were college foes, said, “Randy is more of a dominating pitcher now. He can change pitches, and he can hit spots. Not only is he a power pitcher, he can mix speeds up and be around the plate.”

Usually. Bonds was hit by a 94 mph fastball on his well-padded upper arm in his first at-bat against Johnson last week. He smiled and trotted to first. He grounded out in his next two at-bats.

Johnson is as much a devotee of conditioning as the premier right-hander of his time, Roger Clemens, who is working similar post-40 wonders in Houston. Following his start against the Giants, Johnson, as per his usual day-after regimen, endured three hours of cardiovascular work, lifting and stretching.

The routine is necessary not only for maintenance but for prevention and continued rehabilitation. Johnson has battled back problems and last season had arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. He went 6-8 with a 4.26 ERA. Asked how the knee is doing, Johnson said, “I think my performance speaks for itself.”

“Everything’s been documented, like with Clemens,” Johnson said of his regimen. “I’ve had back surgery, I’ve had knee surgery and I’ve worked just as hard as him. I just don’t have camera crews following me around.

“I actually incorporate more things in my workout now. I have to keep my back strong, I have to keep my knees strong, and on top of that I have to do my regular workout, as well. … I’ve always worked out. I think the regimen got more drastic, and I realized I was getting better results by working harder and doing things a little different. I hired different trainers. I learned different things.”

After enduring wild times in Montreal and Seattle, Johnson, helped by some advice from Nolan Ryan, broke through in 1993. His walks fell from a league-high 144 to 99 in 45 more innings, and he won 19 games. Johnson turned 30 that season, and few pitchers past that age have fared as well. Since joining the Diamondbacks in 1999 at the age of 35, Johnson won 17, 19, 21 and 24 games in consecutive seasons, led the league in strikeouts four times and ERA twice and won four Cy Young Awards in succession.

These are Koufax-like feats. But the legendary Dodger never put together a run as long as Johnson’s. What has he meant to the Diamondbacks?

“Other than everything, not much,” Arizona general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. said. “It’s hard to put into words. You see him every five days, and sometimes it’s hard to appreciate you’re seeing one of the great pitchers of all time.

“When people say, ‘I saw Koufax,’ or ask, ‘What was Koufax like?’ that’s Randy Johnson now,” said Garagiola, who signed Johnson to a five-year, $52.4million contract when he became a free agent in 1998. “I mean, 20 or 25 years from now, people will say, ‘I saw Randy Johnson,’ because he will be in the Hall of Fame and he will have attained those kinds of numbers.”

Johnson, who endured awkwardness and taunts about his height as a kid growing up in Southern California, was almost perpetually cantankerous and cranky to outsiders, i.e., the media. He appears to have softened a bit. Still, he likes being contrary and seems especially bent on searching for materials to feed his inner fire. Doctors removed some loose cartilage from Johnson’s knee, but they left intact the chip on his shoulder.

Like the comment about Clemens and his workouts. Randy, fourth in career strikeouts, seems to have Roger, who is second, on the brain. When it was noted that fans marvel at Johnson’s achievements, he sort of scowled and said, “Nobody marvels. They marvel more at what Roger Clemens does.”

OK, maybe. Maybe not. But let’s talk about just you.

“It doesn’t matter about me,” he said. “I go out and do my thing. I’d just as soon go unnoticed, and I kind of like it that way.”

Unnoticed? Like in all those television commercials?

“Locally,” he said. “I’m not really doing anything nationally.”

Well, yes, unless you count the commercials popping up everywhere on the tube, far beyond greater Phoenix, including a deodorant ad that airs about every five minutes.

“That was my big endorsement break in the entertainment world,” he said.

An admitted clown as a young player who wore a Conehead get-up and a fake nose-and-glasses in the dugout, Johnson grew up. But he remains a joker of sorts, as evidenced by Hammock and the watch. Sometimes it is hard to tell when he’s kidding, such as a few years ago when he described to an out-of-town reporter with a perfectly straight face and deadpan delivery about the pain he was feeling in his back. Except that he wasn’t.

Some matters, however, seem to cut deeply. He might claim to have forgotten about the perfect game or Kruk or his last start, but he clearly remembers back a few months when some wondered how he would do this year, what with the knee surgery and being 40 and all.

Johnson’s memory remains as sharp as his control when it comes to the press conference nearly six years ago when he joined the Diamondbacks. Someone asked whether he was signing with an infant club that lost 97 games in its first season simply because he and his family (Johnson is married with four children) lived in the area during the offseason.

“The critics said I came here because I was building a house here and I had no desire to win anymore,” said Johnson, who before this season signed a two-year deal worth a reported $33million. “Those were literally the questions I was asked. Why come to this team? Because I believed we could win.

“Since then, we’ve won the World Series faster than anybody in baseball, we’ve won the NL West a couple of times. The critics are gonna say what they want, but they never say, ‘We questioned you, but boy, we were wrong.’ Just like my knee. Just like my age. Then people wonder why I’m a little standoffish towards the media. Because they never really had too many positive things to say about what I do, never shed too much good on what I do or what I’ve done.”

Other than all the awards voted into Johnson’s hands by the media or the fact Johnson was named Sports Illustrated co-Sportsman of the Year in 2001 with Curt Schilling or the countless stories detailing how good he is, he is probably right.

But no matter. Whatever works. An intelligent person with varied interests and hobbies, Johnson seems to know what he’s doing. Last month, he lost a 1-0 thriller to Tom Glavine and the New York Mets. Afterward, he vented his frustration, saying, among other things, that Diamondbacks fans would be better off going to the movies given how the team was playing. The remarks caused a little bit of a fuss, but it is older news than the perfect game, so he probably has chased it from his mind. Then again, maybe not. But he hasn’t lost since.

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