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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

July 27, 2012 at 5:24 PM

Randy Johnson vehemently denies “tanking” in 1998

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(Randy Johnson and Dan Wilson confer during the 1997 playoffs vs. Baltimore. Seattle Times staff photo).

There were lots of laughs and lots of poignant moments today during a luncheon at Safeco Field for Randy Johnson and Dan Wilson in advance of their induction into the Mariners Hall of Fame prior to Saturday’s game. I’ll cover that, and ruminate on their Mariners’ legacy, in a column that will run in Sunday’s paper.

But at a press conference after the luncheon, Johnson initiated the topic of 1998, specifically accusations that he tanked that year prior to his trade to Houston on July 31 of that year. As you’ll recall, Johnson was embroiled in a contract dispute, and went 9-10 with a 4.33 ERA in 23 starts for the Mariners, then went 10-1 with a 1.28 in 11 starts for the Astros. It was the dramatic disparity in those statistics that led to talk that the Big Unit tanked the Seattle portion of his season, and I can vouch for the fact the innuendo has always gnawed at him. In virtually every interview I’ve done with him over the years, he’s brought it up, unsolicited, and he did it again today. For the record, I never thought he tanked, even less so when I delved deeper into his numbers that ’98 season, as I addressed in this column from 2009.

Johnson went into a long, passionate defense of his ’98 season today, and though at one point he said, “I didn’t mean to get off on that, and hopefully no one will even write about that, because today and tomorrow are special days,” I think his point of view deserves to be heard. He’s talked about this in the past (as I address in the linked column), but never to this extent. So I’m going to present his words in their entirety, because it’s an important part of Mariners history:

“The one thing that bothers me, to this day, is people thinking I tanked it when I left here. I’ll be the first to say, on my dad’s grave, I never tanked it. Now, did I get sidetracked because of contract negotiations and I wasn’t as focused? Absolutely. But if anyone knows me – that’s the same person that volunteered to come out of the bullpen 24 hours after pitching here and later in my career. I loved the game, I gave everything I had, and I loved Seattle. Things didn’t work out in 1998. There’s different levels of my success. I went on to Houston, pitched 11 games and went 10-1. I never did that in Arizona. I never had two months in my career. Why? I have no idea. I won four Cy Youngs in Arizona; I never went 10-1 in any stretch in the four years in Arizona.

“So I know what it looked like. This pitcher we expect a lot out of, now he’s below .500. People have to remember, I was dealing with a contract, things are a little blurry in my head, fuzzy. I’m going from a last-place team to a first-place team, the Killer Bs and Billy Wagner, and I’m getting three or four runs of run support, and I have a guy that can close out games. That’s not to say anything bad about my teammates then, but things just didn’t go well that year for me. Success is very funny. I look at all different levels. Here I had a lot of success, Houston I had great success for a short period of time, and then the pinnacle of my success was in Arizona, to win four straight Cy Youngs and be part of a memorable and historical, for a lot of different reasons, World Series.

“I’m very serious. The one thing that bothered me when I left here was when people thought I wasn’t trying my hardest. As an athlete, that bothered me a lot. I’d be the first to say, I didn’t play well, I didn’t pitch well. Did it distract me? Absolutely. I’d be the first to say that. But if the game was that easy, to leave here and be a mediocre pitcher in a good pitcher body, and go on to Houston and do legendary things, how can I answer that? I never did it when I was in Arizona. And I won four straight Cy Youngs. I never went 10-1. The game is funny. All I can say is, I wasn’t focused. It affected me. When I left here, I felt there was a ton of bricks off my back. I had nothing to prove, but when I came to the ballpark and I had no worries, then I was really confident. When I was coming to the ballpark at the end of ’98, not knowing if I was traded, did that affect me? Yeah. That’s part of the game. Some athletes, it doesn’t affect that much. Other athletes, maybe it affects them. Well, it affected me. I’d be the first to admit that. Sorry I got hung up on that. There are a lot of positive things to talk about. But that really bothered me when I left here. To this day, I have a Mariner fan say here and there, what happened in ’98. It’s easy to mistake that I wasn’t trying when I went off to Houston, and I used that as a bar, because I never did that when I was in Arizona. It’s easy to perceive I didn’t try here, based on not getting what I wanted.

“I also wanted to stay here, and that needs to be cleared up, too. I never wanted to leave. I didn’t mean to get off on that, and hopefully no one will even write about that, because today and tomorrow are special days. But it bothered me when I left here. Seattle means so much to me. It really does. No one knows how much except for my wife how much Seattle means to me. And there’s reasons because of being a young pitcher struggling, and then being depended on. That’s a pretty powerful feeling – going to the ballpark, fans are counting on you, and your teammates are counting on you. And I got the first of that when I was here. That’s a pretty powerful and magical feeling. It’s a lot to take on, but it’s a pretty cool moment. It got bigger and better, unfortunately, when I left to Arizona. That level of importance and accountability got bigger, but I first got that here. From a professional standpoint, it’s pretty powerful when your teammates are counting on you. Like Junior. I failed a lot of times, but we were successful. I never claimed I did it by myself. There’s people like Dan who helped me along the way, that helped me look good, putting the right finger down.”

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