For Randy Johnson, the march to greatness started in Seattle

Jan 6, 2015, 12:18 PM | Updated: 1:57 pm
Randy Johnson had moments of brilliance early in his Mariners career, including the first no-hitter in franchise history in 1991, but it took a meeting with Nolan Ryan to help him harness his ability. (AP)

Randy Johnson won four Cy Young Awards and a World Series title with the Arizona Diamondbacks, but he came into his own as one of the best left-handed pitchers in the history of baseball here in Seattle.

Johnson, who was one of four players elected Tuesday into baseball’s Hall of Fame, arrived in Seattle in 1989 at 25 years old, 6-foot-10 and maybe 220 pounds. The arm was electric, but erratic. The demeanor: angry, mostly controlled. Mostly. The pieces were there, but there was work to be done.

“He was very tall, very lanky,” remembered longtime head athletic trainer Rick Griffin. “He had an unorthodox delivery, everything about him was so raw. Everything he did, everything he knew about baseball was still kind of in its infancy. It was so raw. You saw talent but it was completely undeveloped. He was like a very young kid with a lot of talent, but he didn’t know how to use it.”

Johnson led the league in walks from 1990 to 1992, all the while piling up gaudy strikeout numbers. A tweak in his delivery following knee surgery in 1990 helped him with repeatability of delivery. There were still days he struggled, however, and Griffin, who had worked closely with Johnson in his rehab, decided that he could use an assist from another future Hall of Famer to get to the next level.

“I asked Nolan Ryan to talk to him,” said Griffin.

Griffin had gotten to know Ryan away from the baseball diamond on an altogether different field – or more accurately, arena. In addition to taking care of baseball players, Griffin was head athletic trainer for the Montana Pro Rodeo. And as a spokesman for Wrangler, Ryan ran in the same circles in the offseason.

“I got to know him a bit,” said Griffin of Ryan. “He had mentioned Randy’s name to me several times. He was impressed with Randy and thought he had a lot of talent and so I finally did ask him if he would please talk to hi. (Johnson) was having some rough times. He talked to Randy and I think it made a huge impact on him.”

The introduction was made in the Texas Rangers’ weight room in September 1992.

“I took him over to the weight room in Texas,” remembered Griffin. “Randy actually watched him work out and I think that was an eye opener for him because there was a 40-year-old guy, crushing himself lifting weights, and Randy was thinking, ‘If that guy is 40-years-old doing that, I’ve got to get on the ball.’ … He got way more serious. He realized that if he wanted to have a long career he had to lift weights and he had to do conditioning. He became a different animal.”

The physical aspect of his game was the last piece of the puzzle. The mental side was always there. He was a competitor like no other.

“On the day he pitched he didn’t even like to talk,” Griffin said. “All he wanted to think about was what he was supposed to do when he got on the mound. He had that intensity built up, and to him, by the time the game started he was so intense on the mound, so intimidating on the mound it carried through. I think if you asked a lot of players who faced him he was probably one of the most intimidating players that ever played.”

The intimidation and intensity is legendary. It was never a comfortable at-bat against Johnson, and many a ball player would come down with what was known as “Randyitis” on days they were to face him. Most of the afflicted were left-handed. Those who got a pass, a day off against Randy, were lucky. Those who were in the lineup got something extra.

“There were a couple of left-handed hitters that when he would see they were in the lineup it would just light him up,” said Griffin. “He would get just basically angry that they were in the lineup. That just turned on the fire even more. He would strike guys out and he would flip his glove at them. He was just so intense, he wasn’t trying to show anyone up, he was just so into what he was doing and the intensity was at such a high level that was just the way he kept himself going.”

As tough as the hitters had it, Johnson’s catchers had it even worse, according to Griffin.

“Scott Bradley to this day doesn’t have any feeling in the index finger of his left hand from catching Randy,” he said. “He would come in after games and his hand would be black and blue. With Dave Valle, Randy would throw a lot of balls high and outside of the strike zone and you would have to jump up to catch them, and when you did the velocity would take your arm back and it would irritate Val’s shoulder to catch him.”

A small price to pay for a guy who otherwise could take an entire team on his shoulders every five days.

In 1995 Johnson did extra lifting. With a pitching staff on fumes following a ridiculous end-of-the-year schedule, he remained in a one-game playoff against the Angels despite a 9-1 lead to save the bullpen. Four days later he would take the ball again and get the win against the Yankees in Game 3 of the ALDS. Two days after that, in he would come in from the pen in a tie Game 5 in the ninth inning. This is the moment that most remember of Randy Johnson as a Mariner.

“Of all the times I have ever been on the bench for a game, that game more than any game I will ever remember, I have never had goosebumps like when I saw Randy walk out of the tunnel in the Kingdome and start to walk down to left field,” Griffin said. “I have never heard a crowd react to just seeing someone walk on the field like that. The fact that he walked out there to that bullpen was amazing. One of the most amazing things I will ever remember.”

Griffin knew that Johnson had been extended, having thrown twice in the previous seven days. But if anyone could handle the extra work and the environment, he knew it was Johnson.

“He was a very big, strong person, and very determined,” he said. “When people ask if he was a good teammate, well that to me was the ultimate good teammate. To go out there and sacrifice everything you have to help your team to win? That to me says everything you need to know about him.”

Truth be told, most of that was most likely developed before he reached Seattle. Competitors are born, not made. His breakthrough from good to great happened here, though. The tools he would need to play in the league for over twenty years were developed as a Mariner. He was part of the Mariners’ success, but the Mariners were part of his as well.

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For Randy Johnson, the march to greatness started in Seattle