Big Unit showing more sides since retirement
New Hall of Famer embraces photography, visits war zones, opens up
NEW YORK -- The many facets of Randy Johnson were on display Wednesday as the Class of 2015 was introduced by the National Baseball Hall of Fame during a media conference.
Photographer, USO volunteer, new special assistant with the D-backs, former left-handed pitcher for six teams -- Arizona twice -- and now utterly eloquent.
"I was really naïve about all of this," Johnson said during a post-conference scrum. "I had a real nice press conference with the media in Arizona yesterday. And if you New York people can believe it, I was really funny. They were laughing. As I told them: 22 years and the expectations that came along with it as I came into my own, I enjoyed moments. And I wish I would have shared more moments outwardly. I guess that just wasn't me."
Big Unit, Pedro, Smoltz, Biggio make Hall of FameBut this is where Johnson, at 51, is now. He'll be inducted into the Hall on July 26 in Cooperstown, N.Y., along with fellow pitchers John Smoltz and Pedro Martinez and the multi-positioned, 3,060-hit lifetime member of the Astros, Craig Biggio. It's the largest class elected by eligible members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America since 1955 when Joe DiMaggio highlighted that quartet.
Consider this Johnson's reintroduction to the sport he dominated for more than two decades, winning 303 games, striking out an all-time second-best 4,875 batters, pitching a perfect game, capturing five Cy Young Awards and co-sharing the 2001 World Series MVP with D-backs teammate Curt Schilling.
Johnson may be most identified for his eight years and two stints with the D-backs, who on Tuesday made him a front-office member and said they would retire his No. 51 this season or next in the wake of the Big Unit's election with 97.3 percent of the vote. But Johnson also was brought up by the Expos, played 10 years with the Mariners, went 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA in 11 late-season 1998 starts for the Astros, won 34 games (17 and 17) in two seasons for the Yankees and recorded his 300th career win in 2009 with the hometown Giants. He grew up in nearby Livermore, Calif.
It's not clear at this point whether any of those logos will appear on Johnson's plaque, but what he made clear Wednesday was that after all those years competing at the highest levels of Major League Baseball, he needed a break.
"When I retired from San Francisco, I didn't cut my ties from baseball because baseball has meant too much to me," he explained. "I was in constant contact with Derrick Hall, the president of the D-backs, various teammates and players and all that, but really after 26 years of doing anything, you need a little bit of time with your family and basically a little bit of time to do the things you want to do."
A photo journalism major at USC, Johnson set out all over the world shooting pictures of places he longed to see, going to Africa and hitting the road with musician friends. He took seven tours with the USO, visiting military camps in some of the hottest war spots in the Middle East.
"It took me out of this surreal world that I lived in," he said.
The 6-foot-10 Johnson made a large target during visits to Germany where wounded soldiers are transported before they are sent back to the U.S., to Afghanistan where he dodged an incoming mortar attack, to South Korea where he stood on the border of North Korea in the Demilitarized Zone, to Bahrain "where kids slightly older than my oldest child were carrying M-16s."
"If that's not going to be eye-opening to you, nothing will be in life," Johnson said. "It puts things into perspective."
And so, like several other players who were somewhat recalcitrant during their on-field careers, Johnson has returned a little older and much wiser. Ryne Sandberg and Eddie Murray are two others who became chatterboxes since their elections to the Hall. Both maintained they tried to make themselves inaccessible to the media during their playing days because they didn't want to expend the energy needed to attain and maintain a level of acute proficiency.
And so it now seems to be the case with the sometimes and onetime irascible Johnson, who's not afraid to share his opinions anymore. Asked who he thought should be in the Hall of Fame, Johnson didn't hesitate, saying former Mariners teammate Edgar Martinez "because he's the best hitter I ever saw; he's the first player on the ballot that would get my vote."
Johnson's viewpoint evidently has changed.
"When I was slightly removed from baseball, I was involved with real moments I could share with [fans] who would come up to me and say, 'Hey, I saw you pitch in Seattle, early in the Kingdome,'" he said. "And that meant a lot. But more importantly, it means a lot what you're doing, just giving back. I'm just trying to get across what I was occupied with. I wasn't on a deserted island. I was just enjoying life."
And now, he says, he'll try to help the D-backs "in some capacity," just like Luis Gonzalez has already, working in the community alongside Hall and filling in on television broadcasts when necessary. Gonzalez, whose walk-off base hit against Yankees closer Mariano Rivera ended Game 7 of the 2001 World Series in Arizona's favor, is the only D-backs player to have his number retired. Gonzo wore No. 20 and sometime soon, Johnson's No. 51 will join those digits on the facade of the right-field upper stands of Chase Field.
It's a whole new life.
"I'm very excited about that," Johnson said about working with the D-backs. "I'll still do my travel and my photography. But the Hall of Fame and who's on the ballot was the furthest thing from my mind. I didn't even know how it all worked and how the wheels were spinning. Now being thrown into the fire, I'll probably pay a little more attention. Now being part of this [Hall of Fame] family, I'll watch how things operate."