1. The time he hit a bird with a pitch
In the early years, before the Cy Youngs, the perfect games, and the World Series ring, Randy Johnson was young, phenomenal, wild, and sometimes all of those things at the same time. He walked 152 batters in 201 innings as a 27-year-old in 1991. He was in the top 10 leaderboards for batters hit by pitches 11 times over the course of his career. Out of sheer fear of getting hit, his pitching forced John Kruk to switch-hit during an All-Star Game at-bat, something Kruk never did at the MLB level. He eventually reined in the command, although the HBPs remained high (make of that what you will), but this one event could have only happened to Randy Johnson:
All Hall of Fame pitchers have trademark performances and Johnson has a bevy of them in his portfolio, but the video of him hitting a bird in mid-flight will stand alongside his World Series performance and a host of other memories as the most memorable and distinct Randy Johnson event of all time. —Mauricio Rubio
2. The day I realized I was watching a Hall of Famer
When I was nine, I saw Nolan Ryan pitch. It was 1989, and Ryan still had a few good years left in him. Indeed, he finished 5th in the AL Cy Young balloting that year! (fun fact: Nolan Ryan never won a Cy Young Award.) He lasted only 5 1/3 that night, but as he departed the field, the Cleveland crowd gave the Texas man a standing ovation. I was only enough to understand that I was watching a Hall of Famer in the twilight of his career.
Fast forward to when I was 15 and my friend Steve called me up and asked if I wanted to go to the Indians game tha.. (yes!) Then he said in a hushed tone, "Randy Johnson is pitching tonight." We both knew what that meant. Solving Randy Johnson was a tall order. At that point, I had a bit of a revelation. There were baseball games, and then there were Randy Johnson games. (And RJ did not disappoint throwing a complete game and 160 pitches!!!) The vaunted 1995 Indians offense managed three runs off of him, but the Mariners scored five off Mark Clark, Jason Grimsley, and Julian Tavarez. But yeah, I saw him pitch. And it was the first time I knew I was watching something special happen while it was happening.
If only I (and everyone else in the BBWAA) had realized that I was also watching Edgar Martinez. —Russell A. Carleton
3. His home run
Thanks to his remarkable durability and insane in-game pitch counts, Randy Johnson got a whole lot of plate appearances during his first four seasons as a starter in the National League. His 387 plate appearances from 1999-2002 were 55 more than any other pitcher had over that span. Despite all those chances to hone his second craft, though, he was dreadful at bat. At the end of the 2002 season, Johnson’s career batting line was .124/.147/.149. In 447 plate appearances, he had 187 strikeouts, 10 extra-base hits (all doubles), and nine walks.
If anyone had held out hope for an offensive breakout at age 39, it had to have dimmed by September 2003. Johnson’s inconsistent and injury-truncated season on the mound followed him into the batter’s box, and by mid-September, his line was .107/.107/.107. In 30 plate appearances, he had three singles, two sac bunts, and 16 strikeouts.
Then, at last, he found his stroke. He turned 40 on September 10, 2003, and that seemed to unlock his offensive talent. He had two hits (a line-drive single to center field and a grounder through the right side) in a complete-game win over the Rockies on September 14, and then, in his first at-bat in Milwaukee on the 19th: impact. Doug Davis fell behind Johnson 2-0, threw a string-straight fastball, and watched the Big Unit launch it over the fence in left-center field.
I know what you’re wondering: Did Randy Johnson Turn the Corner? Well, he had a hit in two trips in his final start of 2003, but to really isolate the wake of his corner turn, we should start our accounting the following year. In 2004, Johnson had three hits (including a double), a walk, and two sacrifices over his first six starts (15 PA). From there to the end of that season: .103/.141/.132. From 2005 through his retirement: .105/.153/.114.
Johnson had 691 career plate appearances, but just that one jolt (against 296 strikeouts). Still, find me another pitcher who hit .368/.347/.526 in his first nine games after turning 40. —Matthew Trueblood
4. When he topped a Jason Schmidt one-hitter I attended by throwing a perfect game
In the summer of 2004 I lived within walking distance of Wrigley Field and had a partial season-ticket plan. My dad's plan was to sell about half of those tickets and recoup our (read: His) money, but I had other plans. Namely, going to as many Cubs games as possible and enjoying the nightlife. One of those evenings I went to watch the North Siders take on Jason Schmidt and the San Francisco Giants. Schmidt was nasty that night, carving up the Cubs lineup to the tune of 13 strikeouts, one walk, and just one hit. I clearly remember the one hit as well. It was a little dribbler off the bat of Michael Barrett that Edgardo Alfonzo couldn't make a play on, essentially a swinging-bunt single.
That evening, as I dejectedly walked home with my roommate—one of many sad walks home from Wrigley I have experienced in my previous life as a fan—we both pondered how the Cubs embarrassing effort was sure to lead off Sportscenter, or at the very least Baseball Tonight. However, as we were making our trek, I overheard someone talking to our friend and immediately our melancholy was lifted. "Hey, did you hear that Randy Johnson tossed a perfect game?" Johnson, who was a year removed from wrapping up four-straight Cy Youngs and was in the midst of a second-place finish, whiffed 13 Braves, and allowed a bunch of nothing that night. The Big Unit may have only been a tick better than Schmidt that May 18, but that didn't matter. He had tossed the always elusive perfecto, and in doing so, ensured that the Cubs humiliation would go unnoticed. —Sahadev Sharma
5. The time he ruined Larry Walker's Hall of Fame chances
Prologue: "Back when we played together, he threw the ball 100 miles an hour and really didn't know where the ball was going," said Walker, who's batting .398 with 25 homers and 68 RBIs for the Colorado Rockies. "He threw the first pitch for a strike, I swung at the next pitch for strike two, and the 0-2 pitch nicked my chin going about a hundred. It knocked me down on the ground and I had to go change my shorts after the game. The 1-2 pitch, I swung before he even released the ball and sprinted back to the dugout."
From 1993 to 2000, Randy Johnson was the best left-handed specialist in the game. Against him, lefties batted just .185/.267/.253, which was 40 points of OPS lower than any other pitcher (reliever or starter) in baseball managed. So you can appreciate that no lefty wanted to face him, and why for most of those seasons few lefties did: While the typical left-handed pitcher saw about 25 percent of his matchups come against lefties, Randy Johnson faced lefties 9 percent of the time. (The next highest mark of any lefty in the era was Sid Fernandez, at 15 percent.) And so it wasn’t that surprising that Larry Walker asked to be benched when the two were to meet in a 1997 interleague matchup.
It might not be surprising, either, that this backfired on Walker. In the middle of an MVP season, suddenly Walker was criticized for fleeing from the Mariners ace. From a Paul Sullivan piece at the time:
The whole point of interleague play is so that fans can pay their hard-earned money to come out and watch prime-time matchups such as Johnson versus Walker. But Walker's decision to sit one out didn't register the kind of outrage by the fans and media that Bonds had hoped for.
"If I did that, I'd be squashed," Bonds said. "The public and media would eat me alive. If I did that, I'd be on `Hard Copy' and `Wide World of Sports.' I'd be booed every game I played in. You know, bro, the double standard."
But Johnson's esteemed teammate, Ken Griffey Jr., had another view of "Ferris Bueller" Walker's day off. "I understand that," Griffey said. "He's protecting that .400 average. He didn't want any part of that. Can't blame him."
If Walker hits .400 on the dot, maybe interim commissioner-for-life Bud Selig can insert an asterisk by Walker's name stating: "Refused to face Randy Johnson."
While the tone of that excerpt is that Walker wasn’t being criticized enough, it really was an issue at the time, a Hot Take generator and a good enough reason for a 16-year-old kid to boo Walker when the Rockies visited Candlestick Park that summer.. And it kept going: Years later, Walker’s local media was still ragging on him for “a stale, old joke that has gone on far too long.” He sat out against Johnson during interleague play in 1998, and both times Colorado faced Johnson–now a division rival–in 1999.
Finally, he started against him in 2000, in one of three opportunities. (0-for-3 with a walk and a strikeout.) Then he started four times against him in 2001, and twice in three chances in 2002. He got over it, and, ironically, crushed him, hitting .393/.485/.571 in 33 plate appearance that came mostly in Johnson’s most dominant four-year run. But a lot more people remember Walker cowering at the prospect of facing Randy Johnson than remember that slash line when he finally tried it. It’s subtle, it’s unprovable, it’s just a hypothesis, but I suspect there’s at least one (and probably many more) Hall of Fame voters whose memories of Walker are influenced by those games he sat out in 1997 and 1998, when the best hitter in the National League declared himself incapable of hitting the best pitcher in the American League. I don’t blame Walker for wanting to time his day off to avoid another shorts-changing episode, but I also suspect he lost votes over it. There’s no other good reason a player as great as Walker would be getting 10 percent support on Hall of Fame ballots. —Sam Miller
6. When he struck out 19—and gave up the longest home run I've ever seen
My favorite Randy Johnson memory—and there were many since I lived in Seattle and went to as many Randy Johnson starts as I could—was actually a loss on June 24th, 1997. Johnson gave up 11 hits and four runs that night in a 4-1 loss, but he also struck out 19, and it was the most dominating pitching performance I ever saw in person. I didn’t realize it then because I was a foolish child who believed wins and losses determined a pitcher’s value, but I realize now that this was pitching at its best.
What I remember most about that game though, was Mark McGwire. In the fifth inning, Randy had struck out the mighty Rafael Bournigal and Geronimo Berroa, and had two strikes on McGwire. The crowd was deafening.
And then Big Mac did this.
In my lifetime, I’ve never heard a crowd go from raucous cheers to pin-drop silence quite like I did that night. The estimated length of that homer was 538 feet, but I’m pretty sure it would have reached Tacoma if there wasn’t something in the way.
There were certainly better games that Randy pitched in terms of the box score, but I’ll always remember the night that he struck out 19 and gave up the longest bomb I’ve ever seen. —Chris Crawford
7. When he dominated on Jay Buhner buzz-cut night
July 16th, 1998 was Buhner Buzz Cut Night, and freshly sheared 7-year-old me enjoyed the contest from the Kingdome’s Center Field bleachers. I knew that Randy Johnson was on his way out of town, but as, you know, a seven year old, I was a little too hopped up on sugar and busy talking to my friend Casey to appreciate the early innings of what proved to be Johnson’s penultimate home start.
The game grabbed my attention in the fourth inning, a rocky frame for the Big Unit. He almost single-handedly put runners on second and third, thanks to his own throwing error, a walk, and a balk, the last of which drew pitching coach Stan Williams out of the dugout for a quick visit. I didn’t think much of it, but Casey noticed how odd it was for Williams to make a trip to the mound during a no-hitter. With all of the runners on base, I hadn’t realized that the Twins remained hitless. Despite the jam, we got excited in the way that only kids can in the fourth inning of a no-hitter, certain that we were in for something special.
Sure enough, Johnson settled down. He escaped the fourth by fanning Marty Cordova and Ron Coomer, and then struck out Alex Ochoa, Terry Steinbach, and Brent Gates in the fifth. In the sixth, he worked around two walks by inducing a double-play grounder from Paul Molitor. The crowd was firmly behind Johnson by the seventh, when he breezed through Cordova, Coomer, and Ochoa. Dutifully, I sat on the edge of my seat, certain that any excessive movement would awaken Minnesota’s slumbering bats.
Steinbach flied out to start the eighth, and by this time, Casey and I were sure we were watching history. Alas, my superstitions were no match for Gates, who smacked a hard grounder up the middle to break up the no-hitter. I distinctly remember leaving my seat and begging for shortstop Alex Rodriguez to volunteer himself for an error and erase the hit on the scoreboard, to no avail.
In hindsight, Johnson was brilliant no-hitter or not. That game remains one of the most memorable I have ever attended, and I’ll always be grateful to be have been just old enough to appreciate one of the greatest pitchers of all time working at his very best. —Brendan Gawlowski
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now
Utterly dominated the Reds. Nine K's thru four innings. Struck out the side in the 7th & 8th to push his total to 18. Whiffed two more in the 9th to make it 20 K's, without a walk. His night was done, but the achievement was downgraded because the 1-1 game went into extra innings. It was an afterthought that the Snakes overcame a 2-run deficit in the 11th to walk off with the victory.
Still have a foul ball from that game. And still bitter that Johnson usually doesn't get mentioned alongside 20-K pitchers Kerry Wood & Roger Clemens.
1. Being invited, no ordered by my friends shortly before my wedding to take the train from NY-DC and then the red-eye Megabus home, all to see Johnson go for win #300. The game was rained out.
2. John Kruk's at-bat against Johnson in thew 1993 All-Star Game: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9SH715tr6ek
Saw him take a no-hitter into the 8th at Tiger Stadium. Closest I've ever seen in person at a MLB game.