Trade to Mariners launches Johnson’s career

Part of the INSIDE PITCH series
Written by: Janey Murray

Above all else, the 1989 Mariners needed pitching. If that fact wasn’t already clear, it was especially evident at Fenway Park on May 25, 1989, when Seattle fell to the Red Sox, 10-0.

But help was on the way. Following the conclusion of the blowout loss, the Mariners agreed to a deal with the Expos, sending left-hander Mark Langston and a player to be named later to Montreal in exchange for three pitchers: Right-handers Gene Harris and Brian Holman, and left-handed future Hall of Famer Randy Johnson.

“We looked at a lot of packages, but we had to get pitching,” Woody Woodward, Seattle’s Director of Baseball Operations, told the Associated Press. “We didn’t have the deal nailed down until after the game.”

For months, the rumor mill had been churning with speculation that Langston would be dealt. In his six years with Seattle, the 28-year-old had gone 74-67 with a 4.01 ERA and led the AL in strikeouts three times – but the Mariners had never posted a winning record during that period.

“It’s a shock,” Langston said. “It always is when you’ve been with the same guys so long.”

Langston, who was set to become a free agent following the 1989 season, had reportedly turned down a three-year, $7.1 million deal with Seattle earlier that same day. The Mariners nearly traded him to the Mets in Spring Training, but the deal fell through when it was vetoed by owner George Argyros.

“This gives us a quality starter to go along with (Dennis) Martínez, (Kevin) Gross and (Bryn) Smith,” Expos Vice President Dave Dombrowski said. “And it gives us a quality left-hander, which is something we haven’t had.”

But what Dombrowski didn’t know was that the Expos had in fact just dealt away a pitcher who would develop into one of the greatest left-handers in the game’s history.

Johnson was a 25-year-old prospect at the time, having been selected by Montreal in the second round of the 1985 draft out of the University of Southern California. At that point, his main claim to fame was that he was the tallest pitcher in the game’s history at 6-foot-10. He debuted with the Expos in 1988, getting off to a promising start with a 3-0 record and a 2.42 ERA in four late season starts.

But he struggled in 1989, ultimately getting sent down to Triple-A Indianapolis. In seven appearances for Montreal prior to the trade, Johnson went 0-4 with a 6.67 ERA.

In Seattle, though, Johnson would quickly establish himself as one of the game’s rising stars. Over 10 seasons with the Mariners, Johnson won 130 games while posting a 3.42 ERA, 2,162 strikeouts and five All-Star selections. He captured the AL Cy Young Award in 1995 and was a runner-up in 1993 and 1997.

Johnson would later win four consecutive NL Cy Young Awards from 1999-2002. Following a decade with the Mariners, he spent time with the Astros, Diamondbacks, Yankees and Giants, before calling it a career following the 2009 campaign.

In 22 big league seasons, Johnson tallied 4,875 strikeouts and 303 victories to go along with a 3.29 career ERA. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2015.

Janey Murray was the digital content specialist at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Part of the INSIDE PITCH series