Just the mention of his name elicits a collection of defeated, almost fearful responses from major league hitters.
Some shake their head and laugh nervously. Others ponder their fate for a moment…then shrug their shoulders in resignation. Still others take a deep breath and slowly exhale as if they’ve narrowly escaped death.
Remember the 1993 All-Star Game? The always colorful, left-handed hitting John Kruk stepped in to face Johnson. The 6-foot-10 inch southpaw promptly sailed a fastball over the first baseman’s head. That’s all Kruk needed. He was finished.
He was transformed into a wide-eyed little leaguer batting for the first time as he bailed out against Johnson’s next two offerings. One feeble swing later — Kruk K’d.
“It’s tough to hit when you’re dead,” said the now-retired Kruk in a post game interview after his brush with fate. “If he was going to hit me, he was going to have to hit a moving target. It would be embarrassing to die on national TV.”
Imagine stepping into the box just 60 feet, 6 inches from the game’s hardest-throwing, most intimidating hurler. Facing the long, lanky, lean, and sometimes loose lefty isn’t exactly a walk in a roadside park — it’s more like a night-time stroll through Central Park.
“He’s a very intimidating person,” says Brewers slugger Dave Nilsson after a long sigh. “When you step in the box against him, you know you have to be at your best. Everything really has to come together for you to be successful against him.”
That rarely happens. Not just in Nilsson’s case, but for the entire league.
No matter what statistical formula is used to calculate effectiveness, Johnson is simply the best pitcher in the American League:
Wins: Over the last three seasons nobody in the American League has won more. Johnson has 50 wins.
Earned Run Average: Randy’s three-year ERA is 2.97, tops in the American League.
Strikeouts: Nobody in the American League even comes close. He’s racked up an unbelievable 806 K’s in three years! Dominant? California starter Chuck Finley is second with 530 strikeouts in the same time frame.
In this decade, no pitcher in either league has sent more men dragging their lumber back to the dugout as often as Johnson. He has rung up 1,469 batters — leaving a healthy distance between Johnson and second place strikeout artist David Cone with 1,249 K’s.
Johnson is the first pitcher in history to post five consecutive seasons averaging 10-plus K’s per 9 innings.
But statistics don’t tell the complete story of his dominance. The respect Johnson has from his competitors fills in the details. They voted him as the pitcher with the “best fastball” and “best slider” in the game today, according to a Baseball America poll.
“He’s got a great slider, and his fast ball just seems to explode,” says Paul Sorrento, Johnson’s first-year teammate and former Cleveland Indian. “There are some other hard throwers in the league, but none of them compare to Randy. It’s not even close!”
Why is the 32-year-old southpaw so dominant?
Yes, he has awe-inspiring stuff. And yes, he has a warrior-like competitive spirit. But combine those things with the third and most important aspect of his life, and you’ve found the secret to his success — Randy Johnson is a follower of Jesus Christ.
“About three years ago, I had a traumatic experience in my life — my dad passed away,” explains Randy with a photograph of his father atop his locker. “I was on the brink of becoming a Christian anyway, but when my dad passed away I finally made the vow to the Lord that He could have my life, and I would glorify Him on and off the field.
“In the last three years, I have had more heart and more desire, and I feel that’s a direct reflection of my Christian beliefs and lifestyle.”
Glance at the last three years of his career, and who could argue? Johnson’s game has risen to another level. From good to great. From tough to nearly unhittable. From simply a thrower with good stuff to a pitcher with total command of his repertoire.
“He was tough a couple of years ago when he really didn’t have command of his pitches,” explains Sorrento. “Now he’s really got control of the strike zone. It’s scary.”
The improvement in Johnson’s game is no mistake. When Randy made a dramatic change in his life, his game changed too – for the better.
When Randy’s dad died, the big lefty evaluated his life. He knew what was missing and what was needed.
“Sometimes people need to go through a traumatic experience to turn to God,” says Johnson. “I believed in Him, but I didn’t dedicate my life to Him until I had a tragic experience in my life.”
“When you make that commitment to the Lord, you’re gonna have lots of confrontations, and there’ll be lots of tugging. I feel that myself. But there’s only one way to be on this earth, and that’s to be a Christian!”
Johnson, always candid and never shy, speaks about his faith as openly as he talks about his pitching. Ask him question, and get out of the way-Randy’s got plenty to say!
Ask him about the notion that Christian athletes are soft. He replies with passion, “The Christian athlete is misconstrued as being like an ostrich. When things get tough they bury their head in the sand.
“I would confront any fan or professional athlete to say that to me, because that hasn’t been me in the last three years.
“There have been several times in the last three years where I could have been soft and been that ostrich burying my head in the sand because the going got tough. I got through those situations because I believed that the Lord would get me through them, and because I dedicated myself to doing the things I needed to do to be the best. Thats’s one way I can glorify the Lord.”
Johnson’s performance in 1995 was certainly no ostrich act. No other pitcher came close to his accomplishments. Big No. 51 led the league in earned run average (2.48), winning percentage (.900), strikeouts (294), batting average against (.201), and strikeouts per 9 innings pitched (12.35 – A new Major League record).
Randy finished the season with an unbelieveable 18-2 record, just one win short of capturing the pitching Triple Crown (wins, ERA, and K’s). Had he captured that, Johnson would have been he American League’s first Triple Crown winner in 50 years.
The fact that he got only 26 of 28 first place votes for the American League Cy Young Award is a travesty! Not voting for Johnson after the season he had in 1995 would be like putting artificial turf at Wrigley Field. It’s just wrong.
But Johnson doesn’t revel in his amazing success. He knows hitters respect him. He knows he’s good. But he also recognizes that it isn’t all his doing.
“There are a lot of professional athletes who think they are doing it all on their own,” says Randy. “I was one of those athletes at one time. I felt that when I struck out a bunch of guys, that it was solely me doing it-but not anymore.
“The Lord’s given me the ability to go out and do the things that I do. It’s being done by the Lord.”
Johnson has been gifted with a Kingdome full of talent. He’s tall, he throws amazingly hard, he’s smart, and his competitive spirit is second to none.
“He does not like to lose,” says Mariners catcher Dan Wilson. “He is a very competitive person-a real warrior-type!”
Although he doesn’t go to battle with a javelin in his hand, as Wilson’s comment suggests, some hitters would rather stare down a flaming spear than a Johnson fastball.
“As a hitter, you’re hoping to get a couple walks and maybe chink a flare in somewhere and beat him 1-0,” says Sorrento. “It feels good to be on the other side of it now.”
Others aren’t so fortunate. They have to face the slants of Johnson every fifth day, which usually means success for the Mariners. In 1995, the M’s went an amazing 27-3 in games Johnson started. When an irritated nerve in his lower back sidelined the 1995 Cy Young winner for much of the current season, Johnson was already 5-0 and leading the league in strikeouts-again! Before the injury Randy had won 25 of his last 27 decisions, and he was 34-5 in his last 52 starts.
Although he has missed several “fifth days” this season, the California native takes great pleasure in taking the hill and representing the Lord.
“The greatest feeling I get playing baseball right now is knowing that I can go out every fifth day and be a warrior for the Lord,” says Randy. “I can go out behind the mound and crouch down and say my prayer and then be a very aggressive, warrior-like pitcher, glorifying Him in that sense.
“Knowing that I can go among 50,000 fans and pray, and people take notice of that-it’s very gratifying to me.”
Randy’s relationship with God isn’t something he uses as a showpiece or as a good-luck charm. His faith in Jesus Christ is authentic. And more than being just a warrior-like pitcher, Randy Johnson is a prayer warrior.
He prays before, during and after games. He enjoys close communication with God through prayer.
“I do a lot of praying. I do a lot of talking to the Lord. It’s something I really enjoy,” says Johnson. “When people think I’m talking to myself-I’m doing a lot of praying. So I’m in constant contact with Him.”
The 32-year old pitcher is very honest about his relationship with Jesus Christ. He knew about Jesus for years. But he didn’t live for Him. Today, Randy knows the Lord in a very personal way. He knows the Lord in a way that many people don’t, but in a way that he would like them to.
“I’m sure a lot of people believe in the Lord, but they’re not committed to Him-they haven’t given their life to Him.”
“I think everybody realizes there is a Lord Jesus Christ. Whether they’re committed to Him or not, it’s gonna be important to them before they die to make that decision. We’re talking eternal life-we’re talking forever.”
Sound like a guy who is timid about the Gospel? Not a chance! Randy makes no more apologies for talking about his faith in Christ and his source of blessing than he does for tucking a fastball under somebody’s chin. Even when normal media types don’t want to hear it, Randy gives the credit for his success to the Lord Jesus Christ.
“I realize a lot of media people shut that out They want to know why you have so much success, but they don’t want to hear the real reason-because the Lord has given you the abilities.”
And the Lord has definitely given Randy Johnson extraordinary abilities. Abilities he has worked hard to develop, hone, and master.
Unlike the thrower who broke into the majors with the Montreal Expos in 1988, Johnson has mastered the slider, the fastball, and the art of intimidation. He is a compete pitcher-in every sense of the word.
His peers’ responses don’t lie.
“You just hope to see the ball out of his hand,” says Oakland A’s infielder Scott Brosius after he smiles, chuckles anxiously, and responds to an inquiry about the Mariners’ ace. “He is the ultimate power pitcher!”
Just mention the name and the players will tell you. Randy Johnson is the big league’s Mister Big.
By Rob Bentz
This story was published in the August 1996 issue of Sports Spectrum magazine. Click here to view the entire issue.