The perception of Randy Johnson is that he is ornery. Surly. Unfriendly. And certainly there is some truth to all that. Johnson could be all of those things (and more) at any given time. I think even he would admit it.
But the Johnson I got to know when he was with the Yankees was not nearly the ogre he is often imagined to be. In many ways – despite his dominance – I think there was a lot to the notion that Johnson was still, even in his 40s, a little bit uncomfortable in his own skin.
I remember writing a very long profile on Johnson for the Daily News ahead of his Opening Night start in 2005, and hearing about how the way to beat Johnson when he was in high school was to get inside his head. One opposing school would even go to the umpires and complain that Johnson’s uniform shirt wasn’t tucked in when he was on the mound – technically a violation of the rules – and that would inevitably get Johnson all riled up.
Because it was impossible. “There wasn’t a shirt in Alameda County big enough for him to tuck into his baseball pants,” one of the coaches told me. “But we’d complain to the umpire that he was breaking the rules anyway by not having his shirt in, and he’d go nuts over that, too, since there wasn’t anything he could do about it. His shirt came out all the time, so he got ruffled all the time.”
It was just another reminder of the difficulties that come with being nearly 7-feet tall. It gets easier as one gets older, of course, but it never fully fades away: Johnson ended up living near me in Manhattan, and I recall him telling me once about how he struggled to get into standard city taxi cabs – the partitions made it nearly impossible for him to fold his legs into the backseat.
Could he be a jerk sometimes? No doubt. I know that a lot of players on the Yankees never quite felt comfortable with Johnson because of his over-the-top intensity, especially when it came to his routines. But I also think much of that shell was a defense mechanism from Johnson, who felt that shutting out everyone was the only way to be sure he couldn’t be thrown off by insecurity when it came time to pitch.
Oftentimes he could be quite friendly. Tyler Kepner wrote about a time when he talked so long with Johnson that the lefty was late for stretching, and I had several similar experiences. I remember once talking with Johnson for nearly an hour about faith and religion (not exactly the standard clubhouse discussion) and then having him come back to me the next day with another point that he’d thought about that night.
Sure, his time in New York was hardly perfect. He knew that, too. But he sure did try. During a time when Carl Pavano was missing starts with bruised buttocks, I’ll always remember Johnson having to hold the heat pack on his back to make sure it didn’t slip while he ducked his head under the clubhouse doorway. No one could say he wasn’t tough.
Today is about Hall of Famers, which is coincidental since Tim Raines (who might go into the HOF) gave Johnson the “Big Unit” nickname. But as we wait for that announcement, I still wanted to take a moment to remember Johnson. Everyone knows how great a pitcher he was and – despite the popular stereotype – he’ll also go down as one of the players I most enjoyed covering.