- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 3, 2009

On the day before he would try to scale Mount 300 for the first time, Randy Johnson spent much of the pregame period sequestered in the video coaching room at Nationals Park, studying the opposition. When he was done, he swept through the clubhouse, uttering nary a syllable, and was next seen stretching with his mates in front of the Giants’ dugout.

So it has always been for the Big Unit - all action and no talk. He’s not quite as sphinx-like as Steve Carlton, another quirky southpaw who joined the 300 club in 1983, but they’re pretty close on the Introversion Scale. Like Lefty, Johnson feels his blistering fastball speaks eloquently enough - and perhaps, after nearly 5,000 strikeouts, it does.

So why don’t we seek out Felipe Alou for some insight? Alou, in town for Wednesday night’s big event, was Johnson’s first manager in pro ball - with the West Palm Beach Expos of the Class A Florida State League in 1986. He also, conveniently for our purposes, was a teammate of Warren Spahn, Gaylord Perry and Phil Niekro, all 300-game winners, and hit against all of them.

Well, some of the time. In April 1961, a few months before he won No. 300, Spahn spun a no-hitter at Alou’s Giants. Reminded of that game Tuesday night, Felipe said, “You don’t usually remember too much when you go 0-for-4.” (For the record, Alou went 0-for-3.)

But he remembers much about Johnson, the 6-foot-10 bush leaguer who was - and still is - built like praying mantis… and yet could touch 100 mph. Randy in those days “walked a lot of guys, struck out a lot of guys, threw a lot of pitches,” Alou said. “You knew he was going to be great, but 300 wins? A 6-10 guy isn’t the type of pitcher you’d expect to last a long time. And Randy has had his injuries, his back problems.”

Alou played on the Giants with Juan Marichal, an absolute artist on the mound and one of the greatest pitchers ever. But the gyrating Marichal, who had back issues himself, was essentially done at 33 and wound up 58 wins shy of 300. Bob Gibson (251), dominant as he was, never reached 300, either. Neither did rubber-armed Ferguson Jenkins (284) or Sandy Koufax (165), the Gale Sayers of baseball.

But here’s Johnson on the verge. Why him and not the others?

“These things don’t happen by accident,” said Alou. “You’ve gotta have the mind, the determination. It’s like 3,000 hits. There’s a lot more to it than just swinging the bat. It’s difficult to stay on top of your game for so long.”

Somehow, Johnson has succeeded where others have failed. Maybe he’ll share the secret with us Wednesday night if he beats the Nationals. More than likely, though, we’ll be left to wonder how this slinky fellow with a basketball body won 24 games and a Cy Young Award at 39, threw a perfect game two seasons later and is still getting batters out at 45.

Of course, Niekro making it to 300 was a surprise, too. As Alou pointed out, “Knuckeballers last a long time, but they don’t win 300 games. Three hundred wins makes you think of a monster like Nolan Ryan, but all kinds of pitchers have done it. Guys like [Greg] Maddux, for instance, who fool [hitters]. And Perry. People said he threw a grease ball, but if he did it was 94 mile-an-hour grease. He was a hard thrower [when he was younger] - with movement.”

Over the years, the meaning of 300 has changed some. It used to be, as much as anything, a feat of endurance - individual endurance. But in this era of pitch counts, an era in which starters “endure” into the seventh inning and then turn it over to their bullpens, the milestone has become a little more of a collective achievement - immortality by committee.

Johnson’s 100 complete games are one of the top totals Of His Time, but they don’t compare with Spahn’s 382 or even Ryan’s 222. Those two needed considerably less help than Randy did. Still, 300 victories are 300 victories. Only 11 pitchers since 1961 - when expansion began in earnest - have won that many games, and there’s always the question of how many more will do it.

Heck, folks were doing the same kind of speculating when Perry notched No. 300 in 1982. “Among current pitchers,” Sports Illustrated noted, “only Steve Carlton, with 265 wins at week’s end, and Tom Seaver, with 260, have good shots, and they’re both 37.”

Carlton (1983) and Seaver (1985) were the next two to get to 300, but Niekro (1985), Don Sutton (1986) and Ryan (1990) soon followed. And after a brief respite - and despite the proliferation of the five-man rotation - we’ve had three more 300-game winners: Roger Clemens (2003), Maddux (2004) and Tom Glavine (2007).

So after Johnson wills his way to No. 300, there’s sure to be somebody else. “Yeah, it’ll happen again,” the Giants’ Randy Winn said. “There are a lot of young guys who have put up some very good numbers. It can be done [again].”

One of those young guys is teammate Tim Lincecum, who won the Cy Young a year ago at 24 - seven years earlier than Johnson did - and strikes out more than 10 batters every nine innings. Then again, you have to want to hang around long enough to reach the top of Mount 300. Mike Mussina, who’s five years younger than the Unit, had his first 20-win season last year to bring his total to 270… and just walked away.

“For some guys,” said the Giants’ Edgar Renteria, “enough’s enough.”

Renteria was in the other dugout in ‘03 when Clemens beat the Cardinals for his 300th victory. He knows it’ll be different Wednesday night, though, when Johnson takes the hill.

“You’re going to be nervous,” he said, “because maybe you want to do a little too much. You want to do everything you can to help him win the game. Plus, this is a game for the record books. You’re going to be able to say to your kids, ‘I played in that game.’ ”

It is, indeed, a game for the books. Randy Johnson is going for 300, right here in D.C.

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