INTIMIDATING MAJOR LEAGUE HITTERS wasn't Randy Johnson's fantasy when he began throwing a tennis ball against his family's garage 26 years ago. Johnson, then all of 8, was simply imagining himself as his baseball hero, Oakland A's pitcher Vida Blue. ("He was left-handed," he explains, "and so was I.") It didn't take long, though, for Johnson's potential as a pitching terrorist to emerge. "I'd get in the street and do my windup, and after I threw the tennis ball at the garage door 70 or 80 times, the nails would start coming loose," he recalls. "My dad would have to hammer them back in."
Now, at 34, the 6'10" pitching ace is ready to do some hammering of his own—in hopes of helping his Seattle Mariners nail down their first-ever World Series berth. With his white-dot of a fastball whistling by batters at 102 mph on a good day (and 97 mph on an average one), Johnson has become one of the most feared men in the game, particularly by left-handed batters who, because of Johnson's impressive wingspread, see the ball coming at them from somewhere behind their right ear. The urge is almost irresistible to vacate the premises—a factor not lost on Mariners management, which last week picked up the one-year contract option on the man affectionately known as Big Unit for $6.2 million plus bonuses.
Just a year ago numbers like those would have seemed fanciful. While pitching against the Milwaukee Brewers in May 1996, Johnson suddenly left the game because of back pain and for one of the few times in his major league career found himself on the disabled list. Doctors discovered a herniated disc, and by the time they had scheduled surgery, "just trying to move and roll over was painful," says Johnson. "I couldn't get to the bathroom. I was wondering if I would ever be able to pick up my kids at school, or just walk."
Despite a painful convalescence, when Johnson arrived at spring training this year, he was as good—and as scary—as new. In June he struck out 19 batters, a new record for a Mariners pitcher, in a game against the Oakland A's, and his won-lost record (18-4 as of last week) is the best of his career. Because of his over-powering speed, "it often concerns me that if I throw and lose control, I might hurt someone," he says with no hint of bravado. It concerns others as well, like San Francisco Giants first baseman J.T. Snow, whose eye socket was fractured by an errant Johnson fastball earlier this year. "When you meet him," Milwaukee Brewers right fielder Dave Nilsson says of the pitcher, "you know you're in for a tough day."
Early in his career, though, Big Unit had his own share of bad days. One of six children born to Bud Johnson, a Livermore, Calif., policeman, and his homemaker wife, Carol, he was drafted by the Montreal Expos during his junior year at USC and traded to Seattle in 1989. But because of his height, Johnson often had trouble coordinating his pitching motion and was as likely to walk three consecutive batters as strike them out. "I was pondering maybe quitting baseball," he says.
But about five years ago, Johnson's outlook started to change. One night Nolan Ryan, baseball's now-retired, all-time strikeout king, saw him struggling. "He took me aside and helped me with my mechanics," says Johnson. "I had a million-dollar arm, but I wasn't thinking enough about how to be a pitcher." Then, on Christmas Day in 1992, Johnson's long-supportive father died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm. Still uncertain about his baseball future at that point, Johnson resolved to stay in the game to honor his father. "You could say Nolan Ryan helped me with baseball, and my dad passing away gave me a bigger heart and desire," says Johnson, who became a born-again Christian soon after and gives 10 percent of his earnings to charity.
Johnson met wife Lisa, a six-foot former photo-shop manager, at a 1988 charity golf tournament. The couple married in 1993 and now have two children, Samantha, 2, and Tanner, 17 months. They spend the baseball season at their home in Bellevue, Wash., in a two-story hilltop home that bespeaks Johnson's success: manicured lawns, a Mercedes sedan and a candy-apple red Porsche in the garage.
In the off-season the family heads to Scottsdale, Ariz., where they're building a home—"for tall people," says Johnson. "All the doorways are eight feet high, and the counter tops around waist level instead of at my knees." It is, perhaps, the sign of a man who has discovered other dimensions to his life as well. "My wife and my children have grounded me," Johnson acknowledges. "I don't make baseball my life the way I once did."
Maybe not. But come next week's play-offs, his opponents had better not count on it.
MIRO CERNETIG in Bellevue
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