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Big Unit visits camp, offers insight to pitchers

Johnson says he needed time away from game after 22-year MLB career

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Randy Johnson walked the practice diamonds at Salt River Fields on Monday morning and shared some thoughts with a few D-backs pitchers after they threw bullpen sessions.

It was the first time the Big Unit had appeared at Spring Training for the D-backs since his retirement from baseball following the 2009 season, and judging by the way it went, it won't be the last.

Since he ended his career, Johnson has made just one appearance for the D-backs when he joined in the 10-year reunion of the 2001 World Series team. After a 22-year big league career, Johnson said he needed some time away from the game before jumping back in.

The past three years Johnson has focused on spending time with his family, while also traveling to visit U.S. troops as part of the USO, and he has found time to focus again on photography, which he studied in college.

"For me it was just a matter of detoxing, a little bit of detachment from it," Johnson said. "It was a long grind, lots of injuries and a lot of hard work. I anticipate being around a little bit more over time."

That's something the D-backs would certainly welcome.

D-backs manager Kirk Gibson spent time talking with Johnson and made it clear that he has free rein of the facility.

"He's welcome to come out whenever he wants, watch whatever he wants, interject whatever he wants," Gibson said. "We want him to feel welcome and comfortable here and come back."

Johnson spoke with pitchers Trevor Cahill and Chase Anderson for quite a while following their bullpen sessions.

"Don't ever be content," Johnson told them. "Continue to work hard and strive hard and always find something during the offseason to work on."

If anyone can speak to that it's Johnson, who never stopped pushing himself during his career. While pitching for the D-backs, he won four straight National League Cy Young Awards from 1999-2002.

At the end of each year he would sit down and analyze different aspects of his game that he thought he could improve. Sometimes it was holding runners better, other times it was being more efficient with throwing first-pitch strikes or improving his bunting.

"A guy like that comes in, you just kind of stop what you're doing and try to absorb as much information as possible," Cahill said.

Anderson, one of the organization's top pitching prospects, used to watched an instructional video that Johnson made years ago with pitching coach Tom House and Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan.

"I watched it and said, 'This is awesome. I hope I get to meet these guys.'" Anderson said. "And today, shoot, you get off throwing a bullpen and there's Randy Johnson standing there. I was like, 'Oh my gosh.' Dream come true. It was awesome. It was a lot of good information he was sharing. Just a pleasure."

As much as he wants to help out, don't expect Johnson to be suggesting mechanical changes. He freely admits that mechanics are not his strength, and he has no desire to step on the toes of pitching coach Charles Nagy.

Instead, Johnson wants to talk to the pitchers about the mental side of pitching.

"It's the mindset and the way you go about your business and not being content with your success if you've had some in the past," Johnson said. "Those are the things that I would want to discuss further with people that are interested in doing that. I wouldn't want to waste their time or mine if they're not interested in doing those things. I don't' have all the answers, I only know what helped me."

During his career, Johnson was aggressive in seeking out knowledge from baseball greats like Ryan and Tom Seaver.

All of it helped Johnson win 303 games and build a resume that is all but assured to land him in the National Baseball Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in a couple of years.

The D-backs have wanted to retire Johnson's No. 51 but would like Johnson to be comfortable with the timing. For his part, Johnson said having his number retired would be an honor, but he also wants the time to be right.

"I've never not wanted them to do it," Johnson said. "I just always thought the timing was more important to me. Just like being here right now, it's the timing."

D-backs team president and CEO Derrick Hall called Johnson and told him the club would love to have him come out and be around the team as often as he wants.

"It's great to see Randy out there, he's obviously a big part of our history," Hall said. "We want him to be around. The influence that he could have on some of our pitchers could be enormous. It's really about making him feel comfortable. We want him to know he's welcome any time he would want to be here. Obviously his number will be retired as a Diamondback and should be."

Steve Gilbert is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @SteveGilbertMLB.
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