Randy Johnson took a chance on the D-backs 19 years ago and it turned into 4 Cy Young Awards
Future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson was just about the hottest commodity imaginable entering his free agency in the wake of the 1998 season. With five All-Star appearances, an American League Cy Young Award and a glittering 1.28 ERA for the Astros down the stretch, it was easy to see why so many teams wanted the menacing lefty they called "The Big Unit."
Yet, when Johnson chose his team on Nov. 30, 1998, many baseball analysts had to blink. The Arizona Diamondbacks? Really? An expansion team in 1998, they had only recently completed their first season of play, losing 97 games in the process. However, Johnson wasn't deterred, and he signed a four-year, $52 million contract with the D-backs that included an option for a fifth year.
"Arizona had started out with the most difficult row to hoe in terms of their ability to compete," said one of Johnson's agents, Barry Meister, to Murray Chass of the New York Times. "We became convinced of Arizona's determination to make the team a winner and the fact that they have the resources to do it."
They were right. Here's a year-by-year look at Johnson's remarkable first stint with the D-backs.
It didn't take Johnson long to make a difference. Backed by his National League Cy Young Award-winning campaign, the D-backs pulled off a shocking worst-to-first finish in the NL West, surging from 65 wins to 100 in just one season.
Johnson was the definition of a workhorse, leading baseball in innings pitched (271 2/3), starts (35) and complete games (12). That included throwing 135 pitches while going all nine against the Giants to clinch the NL West on Sept. 24. The D-backs won a division title in just their second season.
Although the D-backs came up shy of the playoffs in 2000, it was through no fault of Johnson. He made it back-to-back seasons with Cy Young Awards and reached a personal milestone on Sept. 10, when he fanned Mike Lowell to become just the second left-handed pitcher in baseball history to reach 3,000 strikeouts.
The 2001 season was legendary for Johnson. He won his third Cy Young Award in a row, and on May 8, he tied Roger Clemens and Kerry Wood's Major League record by striking out 20 Reds in a game, part of a career-high 372 K's on the season.
More importantly to Johnson, the D-backs returned to the postseason with a 92-win campaign, setting up the most iconic moments of his career. His NLCS Game 1 shutout against the Braves paved the way for the D-backs to capture their first NL pennant, and he was even better in the Fall Classic.
Johnson absolutely dominated the three-time defending World Series champion Yankees, shutting them out in Game 2 and beating them again in Game 6 before coming out of the bullpen late in Game 7. Despite no rest, he retired all four batters he faced and ended up as both the winning pitcher and co-World Series MVP after the D-backs' ninth-inning rally. After 14 long years, he was finally a champion.
On Opening Day of 2002, Johnson picked up right where he left off. He shut out the Padres, kicking off his record-tying fourth straight Cy Young Award-winning season. The D-backs won 98 games to win their third NL West title in four years, though they fell to the Cardinals in the NLDS.
Although Johnson battled injuries throughout 2003 and was limited to 18 starts, he did have one memorable moment. He was never much of a hitter, but on Sept. 19, he took the Brewers' Doug Davis deep to left field for the only home run of his career. Johnson's dinger proved to be pivotal, as the final score that day was 3-2.
The D-backs were far from their championship years by 2004, but they at least got to enjoy one more fantastic season from Johnson. He finished runner-up to Clemens for the Cy Young Award and spun just the 17th perfect game in MLB history, the first ever for the D-backs. They have not had another one since.
Johnson was traded to the Yankees in the offseason, and one of baseball's greatest stints finally came to a close. The final tally? Six years, four Cy Young Awards, 1,832 strikeouts, a perfect game and a World Series ring.
That's how you earn a number retirement and highlight a Hall of Fame career.