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Big Unit officially ends 22-year career

Big Unit officially ends 22-year career

Asked to describe his sporting legacy, Randy Johnson spoke with a rhythm that matched one of his familiar pitching sequences.

Randy Johnson
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"That I worked hard, that I was a fierce competitor and that I gave everything that I had," Johnson said.

Strike one. Strike two. Strike three.

Johnson, who was virtually unrivaled in his ability to intimidate and dominate hitters, announced his retirement from baseball during a Tuesday conference call. Demonstrating the same assertiveness that he brought to the mound, Johnson admitted feeling a trifle sad upon ending his 22-year Major League career but sounded completely comfortable with his decision.

"I'm at peace with it," Johnson said.

Explaining the timing of his announcement, Johnson said that he wanted to contemplate retirement long enough to affirm he could walk away from the game irrevocably, unlike athletes who "unretire."

Said Johnson, "I've taken this long because I definitely wanted to relax from [last] season being over and make sure I had a clear head before making this decision and making it wholeheartedly."

The game's physical rigors hastened Johnson's thought process. Last season with the San Francisco Giants, the left-hander tore the rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder on July 5. Though he recovered quickly enough to return in September and make five relief appearances, he felt odd pitching out of the bullpen.

"It was something I wasn't comfortable with," Johnson said.

With a month and a half remaining before the start of Spring Training, Johnson felt it was time to declare his intentions.

"Could I play another year? I believe I could," Johnson said. "I also realize over the last three or four years, the skills were diminishing. ... There's not a lot more for me to do in this game. It's just a natural progression."

The progression of Johnson's achievements described a near-continuous ascent. He gathered numerous accolades, including five Cy Young Awards and 10 All-Star selections. His statistical dossier bulges with notable accomplishments: 4,875 strikeouts, topped only by Nolan Ryan's 5,714 on the all-time list; a 303-166 career record, which made him the 24th pitcher in Major League history to exceed the 300 plateau; and two no-hitters, the second of which was a perfect game at Atlanta's Turner Field on May 18, 2004.

BIG UNIT'S BIG NUMBERS
A look at where Randy Johnson stands all-time in selected pitching categories:
Category No. Rank
Strikeouts per 9 IP 10.61 1st
Strikeouts 4,875 2nd
Cy Young Awards 5 2nd
Hit batsmen 190 3rd
Bases on balls 1,497 13th
Games started 603 21st
Wins 303 22nd

The person least impressed with Johnson's feats was the man himself. "I've never really dwelled on my achievements," he said. "... The driving force I had was to continue to do what I was doing and try to do it all year long."

Relying largely on a fastball ranging between 95-100 mph and a hard slider, Johnson combined style and substance as few others could. Other pitchers threw hard, but they lacked Johnson's 6-foot-10 frame that made his deliveries appear downright wicked. Other pitchers were physically imposing, but Johnson's snarling demeanor cowed opponents before they stepped in the batter's box against him.

"That was an intangible that I made work for me," Johnson said.

That was an understatement.

"Ten years from now, he could be 55 and throwing only 85 mph, but it doesn't matter," Giants center fielder Aaron Rowand said. "He's not only an imposing figure on the mound; he's as intense and competitive as anybody who has ever laced up a pair of spikes and toed the rubber. He's out to not only beat you one pitch at a time. He's out to prove a point with every pitch he throws."

The point Johnson wanted to make was that he wasn't just another fireballer or physical freak. He dedicated himself to the art of pitching, and he wanted his performances to reflect that.

Said Scott Bradley, who caught Johnson early in his career with the Seattle Mariners, "Randy didn't want to be known just as the 6-foot-10 pitcher who threw hard. He wanted to have the same game plan as Greg Maddux."

Johnson's competitiveness was reflected most vividly in his postseason appearances. Facing the Yankees in the 1995 American League Division Series, he struck out six batters in three innings of relief with one day's rest in Game 5 to help Seattle advance to the ALCS.

"To see him stride in from the bullpen was pretty phenomenal," said Dan Wilson, Johnson's primary catcher at the time. "It exemplified the tenacity he had."

Pitching for Arizona in the 2001 World Series against the Yankees, Johnson started and won Game 6 before working 1 1/3 innings of shutout relief the next night as the Diamondbacks scored their clinching triumph.

"You kind of take it for granted at the time, but that just shows you what kind of teammate he was," then-Arizona catcher Damian Miller said. "He wasn't all about Randy Johnson. He was for his teammates as well."

THE CY YOUNG YEARS
Randy Johnson collected five Cy Young Awards during his illustrious career, including four consecutive from 1999-2002. His five awards trails only Roger Clemens, who earned seven.
Year Team W-L ERA K
1995 Mariners 18-2 2.48 294
1999 D-backs 17-9 2.48 364
2000 D-backs 19-7 2.64 347
2001 D-backs 21-6 2.49 372
2002 D-backs 24-5 2.32 334

Johnson might have gone down in history as a mere curiosity were it not for an August 1992 chat with Ryan, who was close to finishing his Hall of Fame career with the Texas Rangers. Ryan suggested some mechanical adjustments and provided encouragement to Johnson, whose performances had been wildly erratic. From 1990-92, Johnson struck out 663 batters but walked 416, nullifying his imposing stuff.

Excellence became Johnson's frequent companion beginning in 1993, when he finished 19-8 with a 3.24 ERA and 308 strikeouts in 255 1/3 innings for Seattle. Johnson attributed his turnaround not only to the advice he received, but also a sharper mental approach.

"From '93, I really was adamant about being as focused as I could be in this game and getting the most I could out of the game," he said.

Johnson managed to do that for a quarter-century, including his Minor League stint of nearly four seasons, despite enduring four knee operations, three back surgeries and last year's shoulder injury.

"I never would have thought I would have played this long, and I feel very blessed that I did," Johnson said.

Johnson ended his career with an 8-6 record and a 4.88 ERA for San Francisco last season. He secured win No. 300 in typical fashion, yielding only an unearned run and two hits in six innings during the first game of a June 4 doubleheader at Washington.

The Giants were Johnson's sixth team. After breaking into the Majors with the Montreal Expos in 1988, Johnson was traded to Seattle in May 1989. The Mariners sent him to Houston before the 1998 Trade Deadline. The following year, Johnson began the first of his two stints with Arizona (1999-2004 and 2007-08). Johnson also spent 2005-06 with the Yankees.

Asked which team's cap will adorn his likeness on his Hall of Fame plaque, Johnson replied, "That's a good question. It's really a decision that's out of my control. I'm not even 24 hours into my retirement. I'll consult with whoever I have to consult with."

One factor is virtually certain: Johnson will be elected to Cooperstown in 2015 on the first ballot.

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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