Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Tatonka's Favorite Mariners Series #3: Randy Johnson

Now, you’ll have to bear with me on this one, because it’s not the “traditional” best memory of the third man in Tatonka’s Favorite Mariners series. THAT memory is probably either his 1995 complete-game victory over Mark Langston (the man traded to get him some six years prior) on 2 October to claim the first-ever AL West title for Seattle, or else his even more impressive outing six days later, when Randy Johnson (who had started two games in the preceding six days) came out of the bullpen with none out and two Yankees on in the top of the ninth and held New York scoreless for two innings before tiring in the 11th and surrendering a single run…which wouldn’t matter due to the efforts of Favorite Mariners #s 1 and 2.

No, my favorite memory of the Big Unit came two years earlier. It might well be my favorite baseball moment ever, and it occurred on 16 August, 1993, at the Kingdome. I was in the cheap left field bleachers behind the plexiglass, watching Dave Fleming spin a fine quality game against the visiting Baltimore Orioles. Our closer that season, the Sheriff (Norm Charlton), was hurt and had pitched his last game of the season a little over a week before. The M's had signed ancient Ted Power to close in his stead, but this plan didn't inspire a great deal of confidence. Keep in mind that the Mariners had yet to experience any manner of success, so despite having Junior and Randy Johnson on the team, we were still a bit giddy over little things.

The Orioles, down 8-3 in a blowout, came back in the top of the 8th. Jeff Nelson had started the inning after relieving Fleming in the 7th, but couldn't get the O's out. Neither could Erik Plantenberg. Neither could Ted Power. The nightmare 8th inning dragged on and on, and it seemed certain that the M's would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Again.

Then it happened. The Kingdome had no "bullpens," in the traditional sense, but instead the relievers warmed up right along the side of the field in left- and right-field foul ground. No one in the stadium missed the unusual sight of our tall lefthanded ace, Randy Johnson, walking down from the dugout to the bullpen mound, where he proceeded to warm up. The man had pitched two days before, and everyone in the park knew something odd was happening. Indeed, there was an electrifying buzz throughout the crowd for the rest of the inning. While the Oriole uprising continued, the Big Unit just kept throwing pitches. Finally, with the Mariners clinging to an 8-6 lead with two outs in the top of the 8th, Lou Piniella waddled out of the Mariner dugout and signaled for the lefty...but RJ was the only one left throwing in the pen...it couldn't be! The buzz of the crowd erupted into outright audible glee for the remainder of the game. That day, I witnessed one of a precious few times that then-selfless Randy Johnson had volunteered to bail out the pitching staff (exhausted from previous games, compounding the recent Charlton injury), offering to close out the game if needed.

He certainly was needed. Although he gave up a walk and a hit, he struck out four batters to end the game and preserve the win. Oh, sure, the M’s didn’t go on to anything spectacular that year (82-80 that season, our second winning season ever), but that one extended electric Kingdome crowd still stands as one of the handful of best sports memories ever for me.

Oh, and that Johnson guy turned out to be pretty good. Today, his career (which will soon continue with a second tour of duty for the Arizona Diamondbacks) stands at 280 wins, a 3.22 ERA (compiled mostly in the AL), 4,544 strikeouts, four consecutive NL Cy Young Awards from 1999-2002, plus his 1995 AL Cy Young with that historic M’s team. This is the resume of a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

More than his well-deserved accolades and place in baseball history, though, RJ is everything that is good about baseball as entertainment. Of course, we would be remiss in remembering the Unit as a Mariner without mentioning his absolutely hilarious moments in the All-Star Games. For instance, in his first inning pitched in the 1993 game in Baltimore, the Unit faced Phillies first baseman John Kruk. With two outs (Johnson had retired some guys named Bonds and Sheffield for the first two outs), the first pitch to the left-handed Kruk sailed several feet over his head at about Mach 6, reminiscent of nothing so much as the scene in Bull Durham when Nuke LaLoosh fires his first pitch at Durham into the press box at 95 MPH.

Kruk, terrified of having a baseball-sized hole blasted through his skull on a subsequent pitch, stood as far from the plate as he could for the next three pitches, waving his bat weakly at each one while falling backwards, happy to strike out just to get away from the situation. (We should note that this was before interleague play, so NL batting stars had often never faced Randy before.)

Four years later, with Randy starting the All-Star Game for the American League, his first pitch to lefty Larry Walker also sailed over the batter’s head at high velocity, and Walker responded by turning his batting helmet around and batting right-handed for the next pitch.


We could go on, but this gives you a sense of what makes RJ third on the list of Tatonka’s Favorite Mariners. Have a great season with the D-Backs, RJ. We still love ya.

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