For Johnson, bitter mood yields ripe effort

May 20, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

IF HE WAS SMILING when his perfect game was complete Tuesday night in Atlanta, that's because Randy Johnson knows how to channel his anger and various other emotions into a force to be reckoned with.

Johnson's plaque in Cooperstown will not depict any kind of Zen master.

One time in Seattle, a Mariners official failed to call Johnson with condolences in the offseason after Johnson's father died. It was a burning slight that Johnson used to fuel a sense of disrespect, mistrust.

By 1996, the Mariners refused to act early and reward Johnson for pitching them into the 1995 postseason for the first time and winning the '95 Cy Young Award. They chose not to pick up their option on Johnson for the 1998 season during 1997, saying they would wait until after the season.

This was bad news: Johnson proclaimed he was devastated, believing the Mariners were ungrateful, that they were monkeying with his sense of self-worth and security.

Never mind that the Mariners believed Johnson had already talked with Jerry Colangelo about playing for the expansion Arizona Diamondbacks. Johnson started to boil. A bitter divorce was on the way - and, boy, was he going to have the last laugh.

Four Cy Young Awards, three National League West division titles, one World Series ring and two contracts worth $86 million with the Diamondbacks later, Johnson still knows how to coax superlative performances from himself.

In other words, anyone watching the Diamondbacks this season would have found Johnson telegraphing a surly, put-upon mood that no doubt meant pitching greatness was coming.

After his last start in Phoenix, Johnson pitched an excellent game - only to lose to the Mets' Tom Glavine, 1-0. A reporter asked if Johnson was bothered by the fact that 27,000 fans showed up for the duel between two future Hall of Famers.

"It's a lot of money to come out to a ballgame. And it's probably spent better going to the movies than coming to watch the Diamondbacks. Got that on tape? Print it. Run with it. You done? OK," Johnson said.

This is the bitter well from which greatness springs.

In other words, it takes a little more than the good graces of Father Time to do what Johnson and Roger Clemens are currently doing.

These are not normal people, people.

Let's review events that indicate Clemens and Johnson tend to be massively competitive and able to kick greater butt when carrying Gibraltar-sized chips on their shoulders.

In the 2000 World Series, Clemens threw a broken bat barrel at Mets catcher Mike Piazza.

Johnson threw behind John Kruk in an All-Star Game - for fun. He threw at Jim Leyritz's head every time the Mariners met the Yankees - not for fun. He also used to throw a little chin music to Kenny Lofton every time the Mariners played Cleveland - maybe for fun, maybe not.

Get the picture?

In 2001, Clemens won Game 4 of the AL Championship Series, putting the Yankees up 3-1, by knocking Mariners shortstop Alex Rodriguez to the dirt - twice. Message sent.

In 1995, Johnson won a rare, one-game playoff over the Angels to put the Mariners in the postseason for the first time in franchise history. He beat veteran ace Mark Langston, the pitcher Seattle had traded to Montreal for Johnson. Message sent.

At the end of the 1997 season, at age 33 and one year after back surgery, Johnson owned a streak that stands as one of the most dominant in baseball: Over 81 starts from May 1994 through the 1997 season, he posted a 53-9 record. He won 43 of his last 47 decisions.

Even though Johnson posted these amazing numbers, he finished second in Cy Young balloting ... behind Clemens.

After all those years in Boston, Clemens in 1997 merely posted some of the best numbers of his career for the Blue Jays.

It's a good thing former Boston general manager Dan Duquette said Clemens was on the downside of his career. Nothing like motivating a guy to prove you wrong.

Likewise, the Mariners thought it could never get better for Johnson than 1995, when he went 18-2, led Seattle all the way to Game 6 of the ALCS and won the Cy Young.

It was clear then that Johnson was beginning to join Greg Maddux - in Hall of Fame stature and salary rank.

Could the aging power pitcher, who at 6 feet 10 is the tallest player ever in baseball, withstand much more torque on that back? Was he going to be worth the risk of paying $15 million a year?

Johnson has now pitched 1,662 innings since back surgery knocked him out for the rest of the 1996 season. The last nine of those innings were perfect, more perfect even than Clemens' record so far this season.

Now the race is on to see which one wins the 2004 NL Cy Young - unless Johnson heads to New York or Boston.

After he was mercifully traded by the Mariners in 1998, Johnson went 10-1 for the Astros. If he wants to try to win a World Series with the Yankees or Red Sox, it would only make sense. Parallel careers - and Cy Young hardware all around for 40-year-olds.

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