Johnson gets to the heart of the matter

October 13, 1995|By JOHN EISENBERG

CLEVELAND -- The best baseball moment of 1995 came late in Game 5 of the divisional playoff series between the Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees, when Randy Johnson and Jack McDowell pitched in desperate relief despite having thrown thousands of pitches since May.

"Those were two warriors out there," Yankees manager Buck Showalter said after the Mariners had won. "One with the best stuff in the league and one with a big heart."

Johnson was the one with the best stuff in the league, of course, and he appreciated the compliment. But he also felt slighted.

"I like to think that I have a pretty big heart, too," he said.

In fact, as he tells it, the enlargening of his heart is the secret behind his transformation from a wild man on the mound to a certifiable master in the past three years.

It is a heart that had to break, first, with the death of Johnson's father in 1992.

"Everybody has to have their own incentives to get out of situations and accomplish things, and mine was having a bigger heart," said Johnson, who will start for the Mariners in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series tonight at Jacobs Field.

Up through the 1992 season, Johnson was good theater more than a good pitcher, a bundle of fascinating and ultimately disappointing excesses: The tallest pitcher in major-league history, the hardest thrower in either league, the longest hair on his team, the wildest pitcher anyone could remember, capable of striking out 18 or walking 13 any night.

He had a 97-mph fastball and a sweeping curveball, but he didn't come close to using those enviable assets for all they were worth. He was a freak show, a .500 pitcher who led the league in walks for three straight seasons.

What was his problem? He was a goof, a nonchalant, scattered dude apparently satisfied with failing to fulfill his potential. He liked the Seattle grunge scene and made a name for himself as an amateur photographer. He wasn't a bad guy, but he wasn't focused on his job. He explained away one bad outing by suggesting he had spent too much time that day listening to "Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida," the mind-numbing rock 'n' roll marathon.

His priorities changed with the death of his father, Bud, in 1992.

Johnson was extremely close to Bud growing up in Walnut Creek, Calif. He credits Bud with giving him the drive to become a major-leaguer.

Bud suffered a fatal aortic aneurysm on Christmas Day 1992 as Johnson was flying in from Seattle for the holidays. In death, it seems, Bud taught Johnson that he needed to take his life's work -- and life itself, for that matter -- more seriously.

Since 1992, Johnson has gotten married, become a father and emerged as one of the two best pitchers in the major leagues, along with Atlanta's Greg Maddux. It is almost as if he is a different person and pitcher than he was three years ago.

Outwardly, his 97-mph fastball, sweeping curveball and taut, hip manner are the same. But he has undergone a profound change inside, one that has allowed him to fulfill his vast potential, graduate to adulthood and discover the full pleasure of playing baseball.

He points to the sky and thanks Bud after the last out of every game he pitches.

"There was a point when my dad passed away that I was considering not even playing baseball anymore," said Johnson, who turned 32 in September. "People ask me how and why I have come into my own now. I truly believe that I have made myself into everything I wanted to be with the help of my dad. I have been able to get out of situations because I've allowed myself to dig a little deeper.

"My heart has allowed me to do the things I have done in the past three years."

What kinds of things has he done? Well, he has a 50-16 record in those three seasons after going 49-48 through 1992. He has gone from allowing 152 walks in 1991 to just 65 this year. His ERA dropped below 3.00 this season for the first time in his career.

"Of all the statistics that are kept, I think that [the low ERA this year] means the most to me," he said. "More than the strikeout titles and all that."

He had an 18-2 record this season and led the league in strikeouts for the fourth straight year, making him a lock to win his first Cy Young Award.

But he has taken his legend to an even higher plane in the postseason, if that was possible. In the span of six days last week, he won the Mariners' one-game playoff with California, Game 3 of the Yankees series as a starter and Game 5 as a reliever, throwing more than 250 pitches in all.

"My arm was tired in Game 5, it was sore," he said. "I went out there because I volunteered to go out there."

Heart.

The Mariners need him again tonight just as desperately. He has to win; the Mariners aren't good enough to survive him faltering.

"We have ridden on Randy's shoulders all season," Mariners manager Lou Piniella said. "Those kinds of things don't change in October."

The old Johnson might have railed at the pressure; he was a notorious complainer. But no longer.

"It doesn't bother me," he said. "I relish it, in fact. Expectations like that are the responsibility I took on when I became the pitcher I am."

Finally.

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