With Randy Johnson pitching at Safeco tomorrow in pursuit of his 299th career victory, I’m in full Big Unit mode right now. I’ll have a story in tomorrow’s paper on the Mariners’ Big Three — Johnson, Ken Griffey and Alex Rodriguez — that touches on the years those three played together (1995-98). I’ll also have a column addressing the notion of 300-game winners, and the theory expressed by some that Johnson will be the last one. Here’s a sneak preview: I don’t buy that at all.
Today, I was on a conference call with the great Nolan Ryan, organized by the Texas Rangers public relations staff because so many reporters wanted to talk to Ryan about Johnson’s 300-victory milestone. If you’ll recall, Ryan played a significant role in Johnson’s development when, in August of 1992, the Rangers played a series at the Kingdome and the two huddled. According to an article in the Seattle Times the following season:
“Nolan Ryan may have turned around The Big Unit’s career. The two power pitchers talked last season when the Rangers visited the Kingdome Aug. 7-9. Johnson said the talks were about ‘setting up batters, never really giving up on them. I gained momentum and confidence on the mound.’
“Ryan gave Johnson enlightenment as no one else has. His message was simple: Cut down on your walks, cut down your baserunners, and you have a better chance of winning.
“He has and he has. Since his conversation with Ryan, Johnson has cut his walks nearly in half. Also down are his baserunners per game, his pitches per inning and his ERA. Up are his strikeouts, his record and his confidence. In 20 games since his talk with Ryan, Johnson is 11-5, with a 2.79 ERA, and is averaging 10.68 strikeouts per nine innings.”
On the conference call, Ryan deflected credit for turning around Johnson, who had a breakout 19-win, 308-strikeout season in 1993.
“I think Randy was on the verge of putting it all together at that point in his career,” he said. “We just happened to visit that day in Seattle, and we followed that with a couple of visits after. I appreciate him giving me the credit, but I feel it wouldn’t have been long before he put it all together.”
Here are some more quotes from Ryan, who is experiencing success in his new career as president of the Texas Rangers — the first-place Texas Rangers.
On why he agreed to help Johnson, a division rival: “I’ve always been appreciative of people who helped me with things in my career. I felt like if somebody asked me for some advice or my opinion, and came to me, I certainly was open to trying to help them. If it were in a series that they were going to be facing us at that point, I might try to delay that. But under those circumstances, I try to help people that reach out to you.
On what 300 victories will mean for Johnson: “I think for Randy to win 300 makes his career complete. He obviously, for a period of time, 10 to 15 years, was one of the most dominating pitchers in baseball. His strikeout ratio is probably the highest for any starting pitcher with the number of innings and starts he has. This pretty much completes his career. We obviously saw a transition in him while he was in Seattle, where he became extremely consistent with his performances. The only thing that really have been a problem for him have been some of the physical problems he had related to his back.
On how he thinks of Johnson: “I think of an overpowering pitcher with a dominating slider. Neither a left-hander or right-hander had any comfort zone hitting off him.”
On how difficult it was for Johnson, a late-bloomer, to reach 300: “The way I look at Randy, his career was more patterned after Warren Spahn’s career than so many other 300 winners. It probably didn’t surprise me he was what I call a late maturer, from the standpoint he was 6-10. Trying to be consistent with extremities that long, and being able to control his body, I think, were the biggest challenges he had as a developing pitcher.”
And, off the beaten path, here’s what Ryan said about Stephen Strasburg and his 100-plus mph fastball: “I think it’s a number that is recognized as the elite of arms, so when someone throws at that level, I think it gets people attention. They know it’s very rare you see an arm of that nature.
“I haven’t seen him, but talking to scouts — the other night I was visiting with scouts, and naturally his name came up — a lot of scouts feel he is probably the best prospect they have seen in their lifetime. They’ve come to that conclusion not only from his velocity, but also his ability to throw his slider, and the command he has. A lot of them feel like he is going to be a candidate to go right to the big leagues.”
Asked if there is a health risk to throwing so hard at such a young age, Ryan replied, “I really don’t think so. I think throwing that hard is a gift; your body is designed where you have that ability to throw to that velocity. If he’s a maximum-effort guy, it doesn’t matter if he’s an 88-mph guy or a 100-mph guy — if you’re a maximum-effort guy, and not conditioned to do that, it increases your chance of injuring yourself. It’s not just because he throws that hard. That would not be a concern of mine.”
(As an aside, Strasburg is not a max-effort guy, from my observation. He throws nice and easy, and the ball just explodes out of his hand).
My favorite answer by Ryan came when he was asked if he could sense fear in opposing hitters when he was throwing at his peak speed: “You could see hitters that probably had some hesitancy about hitting off you by the way they set up in the box, or what their body language was.
“A lot of that was in the days I was probably at my wildest. I could honestly say if they knew what I knew at the time, their body language probably wouldn’t have been good. In those times, I was at periods of overthrowing. It was just pot luck if it all lined up right and I got the ball where I wanted it.”
(Associated Press from Bill Janscha)