Randy Johnson, the future Hall of Fame pitcher, my favorite baseball player, is now a New York Yankee. So, am I suddenly a Yankee fan? No, no more than I’ve been an Arizona Diamondbacks fan for the last five years or so (excepting that wonderful October-November of 2001, of course). Should my pal Newk, a Yankee fan, go ahead and order me that Johnson jersey? I don’t think so. (I’ve still got my Johnson World Series Diamondbacks jersey hanging in the closet, thanks.) But I would say the odds are much better that I might be seeking out a few more Yankee games on DirecTV this summer than I normally might.
And, to be sure, I’ll be tuning in for that season-opening head-butt between the Yankees and Your World Champion Red Sox. Johnson wouldn’t/couldn’t confirm it last night on the Late Show with David Letterman, but can you imagine the combined forces of Theo Epstein, Brian Cashman, Terry Francona, Joe Torre, John Henry and George Steinbrenner, not to even mention the supremely craven Bud Selig, letting the possibility an opening-day match-up between Johnson and ex-teammate Curt Schilling slip through their gnarled, callused and/or well-manicured fingers? God himself would have to come down, take a metal file to Curt’s stigmatic ankle and gouge out the cartilage in Johnson’s reconstructed knee before that potential marquee attraction would get passed over.
I have little doubt Johnson’s intensity and temperament will be a good fit in New York—the “controversy” surrounding his tiff with the WCBS cameraman is, ironically, early proof enough of that, if only that Johnson’s in-game fire will be matched by the mindless ferocity of the local media. (I’m actually a little more interested in seeing how the Carlos Beltran story ends up playing after a season or two—not that I’m expecting or even hoping he’ll wilt, but Beltran is a self-professed quiet type who’s never sweated out the kind of multimillion-dollar hothouse that awaits him in Metropolis.)
Letterman jokingly berated the Big Unit for apologizing to the cameraman at the news conference introducing him as a Bomber, ruminating that he (Letterman) was in town a couple of months before he was forced to apologize for anything. Of course Letterman was right-- Johnson the man need not have said a word. But Johnson the Steinbrenner employee would have done nothing less. The Unit won’t get a free ride in New York, but unless he collapses out of the gate or down the stretch the odds of a cantankerous relationship with New York sports journalists seem slim, and Johnson knows a quick apology now is a small price to pay for being able to concentrate more fully on his job when the season really starts to heat up. On that note, one last bonus on Letterman last night: once again getting to see that grotesquely awe-inspiring footage of Johnson pasting an unfortunate bird with a 98-m.p.h. fast ball a few spring trainings ago. Johnson, who has not been exactly happy to discuss the incident on occasions past, cracked a smile when Dave brought it up last night and said, as definitively as necessary, that it was a classic case of “being in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Johnson need not worry about that being the case for himself this coming baseball season, but I’d bet past Yankee pitchers Jeff Weaver and Javier Vasquez, as well as current albatross Kevin Brown, might understand exactly what he meant.
So I reluctantly bid adieu to Randy Johnson on behalf of the entire National League, and in particular the National League West. I’ll miss not getting to see him on the mound at Dodger Stadium occasionally (or seeing his grizzled mug leaning up against the rail of the visitors’ dugout, watching intensely during those games when he’s not pitching). But at least I’ll know that I got to see this future Cooperstown resident pitch several times in person, and if it means anything to my daughter, when she gets a little older I’ll tell her that she did too. My loyalty has been tested enough already on those past occasions when, to make things even stickier, Johnson was the featured pitcher on my fantasy team, but it’s even worse watching him throw heat at the Dodgers. No matter, though-- my tendency to admire Johnson’s grace and dominance at the expense of the Dodger batting order has been balanced in the past by the Blue Crew’s unlikely ability to knock him around every once in a while, to the Unit’s ever-increasing, and very entertaining, annoyance. But no more of that kind of fun… for a while, at least. There is always the World Series. How does that soon-to-be-nauseatingly-overused phrase go—keep hope alive in 2005? Sayonara, R.J. May the rest of your trip to the Hall of Fame be as full of brilliance on the mound as the years that got you here.